Long before physicist Richard Feynman launched the nanotechnology era with his 1959 assertion, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom,” people were manipulating glass at the nano level — often without realizing it.
For thousands of years, artists have worked with glass because of how it forms, feels, and handles light, while craftsmen have used glass for practical applications because of its stability, impermeability, and transparency. In the last century, scientists have made extraordinary advances in the characterization and fabrication of glass, leading to innovative applications in diverse fields such as architecture, transportation, electronics, communications, and medicine.
How can one material do so much?
At its core, glass is quite simple. The primary building block of glass is silica in the form of sand. But silica is an extremely gracious collaborator with its friends on the Periodic Table. In fact, an overview of glass research reveals that scientists have added more than 50 different elements to silica to create glass compositions with unique attributes.
But composition is just the beginning. Scientists also use a broad range of techniques such as irradiation, surface modification, and precise temperature control to develop specialized glasses with different colors, form factors, strengths, degrees of flexibility, and light-handling abilities.
By fine-tuning the formulation and fabrication of glass, scientists can unleash a nearly limitless stream of new capabilities. This tremendous versatility has prompted scientist David Pye of Alfred University to describe glass as “the quintessential nanotech material.”