Glass is one of the most well-known substances within human society to date. Yet amazingly few individuals are truly aware of what glass is and how it is made.
What is Glass?
Glass is, put simply, a non-crystalline (or amorphous) solid. “Non-crystalline” refers to the fact that the ions within the glass do not arrange themselves into the form of a repeating pattern. Most metals are crystalline solids. Glass, as a non-crystalline solid, is extremely brittle.
Glass in its most basic form is formed from silica. Silica is a substance with the chemical formula of SiO2. While glass can be formed for special purposes, the majority of glass that is found within society has various other elements added to the glass. For instance, soda-lime glass features a significantly lower melting point than pure glass, due to the addition of sodium carbonate in the production process. This also results in the glass becoming water soluble. To counteract this effect, a mixture of lime, magnesium oxide, and aluminum oxide are added to the glass. The result is soda-lime glass, whose actual weight is only 70% pure glass.
Nearly all glass production also includes the addition of “cullet”. Cullet is glass that has been processed and recycled for use in the production of new glass.
Bubbles often plague glass production. Various chemicals are added to glass in order to reduce the number and size of bubbles that form within the glass while it is being produced.
The History of Glass and Why It Is So Special
The main reason glass has become such an important ingredient to many production projects within modern society is its transparency. Mankind had known that water was transparent for countless years, and the realization that air was composed of particles made humanity recognize that oxygen and various other gases are also transparent. Glass was the oldest transparent solid known to exist in human history. Historical records indicate that humans were able to create glass as far back as the year 3,500 BCE.
This quality of being the only known transparent solid resulted in glass becoming used in many different applications. Windows could be created to add natural lighting to otherwise darkened houses. Humans over history found a variety of different uses from it, ranging from practical to artistic.
Perhaps one of the most notable areas of science that has found practical use for glass was the branch of science known as optics. It was noted that different shapes and types of glass resulted in changes of the light which passes through it. These changes in the light were studied for years. This finally led to the development of ancient lenses that could be used to magnify the images of objects. These ancient magnifying glasses are the first indications that humans had as to the potential applications of glass.
While history holds references to earlier devices of this nature, the first truly wearable set of eye glasses were credited as being created in Italy in the late 1200’s. For hundreds of years, the science of optics slowly grew. In the early 1600’s, one of the most well known advances in optics came about in the form of the first telescope. Another equally famous advance was made by Benjamin Franklin in the late 1700’s: the bifocals.
As science has continued to advance, mankind has found other transparent solids. Some of these solids have properties that enable them to function better than glass in some situations. However, glass remains perhaps the most versatile of all known transparent solids in modern society. With such a long history of being so useful, it is easy to understand why glass would find its way into so many different aspects of modern life.
Throughout history, the tendency of glass to be brittle has been one of the biggest disadvantages to it. The invention of the automobile and the use of glass within the windshields was perhaps one of the biggest underlinings of how dangerous glass’s brittle quality could be.
Partially due to the downside of glass and partially because of its lone status as mankind’s only known transparent solid, many different kinds of alternative transparent solids have been discovered within recent years. While a full list of these various materials and their properties would be exhaustive, some of the most important of these alternatives are listed below:
Plastics. Acrylic glass, in particular, was one of the most important glass alternatives to be found. It was found to be extremely light weight and shatter resistant. With less than half the weight per volume as glass, acrylic glass can be used in situations where glass would be impractical.
Amorphous metal. The vast majority of metals have a crystalline structure. Amorphous metal differs in that it has no crystalline structure, causing it to have significantly different properties. This type of metal has been researched for applications of creating nano-scale metallic glasses for a variety of uses.
Phosphate glass. This type of glass alternative has a variety of properties that make it useful. With the addition of iron oxide (rust), phosphate glasses can be made into highly efficient heat absorbers. By mixing silver with phosphate glass, phosphate glass dosimeters can be created. If exposed to ionizing radiation, these dosimeters will begin to emit florescent light when exposed to ultraviolet light.
These are just a few of the glass-like substances that have been discovered in recent years. Experimentation with these materials and those like them may result in the development of currently undreamed of applications for them.
Glass Will Continue To Remain Important To Society
Even with the development of various kinds of glass-like substances, it seems unlikely that society will stop using glass during any time in the near future. Many glass alternatives only offer benefits as glass alternatives in certain, often limited, situations. Glass remains overall the best choice for most applications requiring a transparent solid. It seems unlikely that the near future will produce a glass alternative that matches the ability of glass to function in a variety of different situations.
No matter how the future unfolds, glass has been and continues to remain one of the most useful discoveries in the history of mankind. With applications ranging from vision correction to the creation of dish ware, glass is a constant companion to humans across the world.
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