Non-Random Glass

What is Glass?

A new type of glass has been created. But first, what is glass? It is an odd substance that even to this day is not very well understood. Even though it seems solid, it is considered a liquid by some. This is primarily because of its random structure. The article on glass in Wikipedia calls it a “non-crystalline amorphous solid”.

What is Glass Made Of?

Glass is made by melting different minerals together at a high enough temperature. The primary one is silicon dioxide (about 75%) which is what sand is mostly made of. You may also know silicon dioxide as quartz. Sodium oxide, sodium carbonate and calcium oxide are the other primary constituents of glass.

Newly Discovered Glass

This new glass was discovered by accident. Rather than being random and amorphous, it has structure. They made the glass for a different reason, not expecting do discover glass with structure. But, when they tested their creation spectroscopically, instead of the random pattern that you usually get with glass, this sample had peaks and a definite pattern which indicated that the molecules in the glass were arranged in a regular pattern.

How to Make Structured Glass

Normally glass is made by melting the minerals together and pouring it out in a sheet or into a mold. With this glass they were doing vapor deposition. They heated up the glass and then would spray a thin layer at a time, over and over again until the layers built up and it became thick.

Temperature is critical in the process since you need to get the glass hot enough to melt and spray but not too hot because it then has to hit the newly formed glass and cool and solidify. So there is a very narrow temperature range which is feasible.

Key is Layering the Glass

By putting down a very thin layer at a time, it is thought that this traps the glass molecules in a certain orientation. Interestingly, once the glass cools and sets it keeps the orientation of all the molecules even if it is reheated. (Unless of course you go all the way to where it melts.)

Now, they are playing with the process and seeing how the properties of the glass change and how they can come up with different qualities and uses for these new types of glass. They will also probably modify the ingredients in the glass to see what effects they will have.

New Engineering Concepts

Popular Mechanics had an article that listed new concepts to be aware of which is summarized here. Some are older concepts that have been reborn or upgraded.

  1. Flywheels. Old concept. However, a utility is using it for the first time. Beacon Power opened a 20MW plant that uses flywheels to store energy at off-peak times and draws the energy down at times of high demand and high prices.

2. White space – The electromagnetic spectrum is getting crowded. The FCC ruled that the space that used to be taken by analog television would not be regulated and that anyone could use it. There used to be very little unregulated space in the spectrum. Companies have found that is very good for wifi because it travels further and goes through walls better than wifi does.

3. Fracking – Already old hat and being vilified by environmentalists. It did have a tremendous impact on the supply of oil and on oil and gas prices.

4. Medical isotopes – The reactors that produce them are old and have had problems staying online. This has caused shortages and could cause further problems going forward.

5. Complex event pattern recognition – A lot of companies are mining databases and using pattern recognition to help make discoveries and understand trends. But now some companies are focusing not on databases of information from the past but on data streams that are coming in in the present. This can be used by people on Wall Street for trading purposes or intelligence agencies and anyone else who needs to make split second decisions.

6. Optogenetics – This is a way of stimulating specific neurons. In the past, electrical impulses were used to stimulate different areas of the brain but it wasn’t very specific. With this newer technique, individual neurons can be turned on and off.  It has been used in rodents and monkeys and they are looking to do testing with humans.

7. Mechanophores – Shades of the Terminator and other scifi movies. These are sensors that will change color when they are stressed or damaged that can be incorporated into infrastructure. This way engineers can just look and see if a bridge is compromised. They are working to make them react to different stress levels. They are also looking to see if they can be made to be self-repairing.

8. Cell Phone Medical Diagnostics – More and more apps and devices are being made to attach to cell phones that can help make medical diagnoses. This is incredibly important in 3rd world countries with poor health systems. There may be non-medical uses as well.

9. New Encryption Technologies – IBM has come up with a new “double blind” method that allows databases to be searched without knowing what is in the database. That is above our pay grade of understanding.

10. 100 Gigabit lines – New technologies that have allowed the production of fibreoptic lines that can transmit 100 gigabits per second. That is a big jump from the current 10 and 40 gigabit lines. It could carry 15,000 HDTV channels at once.

Manufacturing Helps Innovation?

Does manufacturing help innovation? No one knows for sure because it hasn’t been studied academically. This topic is now beginning to get attention. MIT Susan Hockfield has an initiative to reinvent manufacturing in the US. Following are notes from an MIT forum on the topic from an article in the Boston Globe.

MIT has a new Production in the Innovative Economy Committee and the co-chair, Suzanne Berger says that not much work has been done studying the relationship between research and development in relation to manufacturing.  The question they are beginning to look at is how much sending production overseas hurt companies’ ability to innovate.

Manufacturing Moved from China to US

An MIT materials science professor co-founded a company to make better lithium ion car batteries. He said they wanted to start production but all the battery companies had moved production overseas. There was no one in the US that had a factory or the expertise in manufacturing. They had to go to South Korea and China to get the beginning knowledge to start up manufacturing. Now they have their own plants here in the US and find it very important. It allows them to play with product design, manufacturing procedures, and experiment with new ideas for quality improvement.

Why China and Why China is Bad for US Manufacturing & Innovation

MIT professor Ed Steinfeld said that a number of companies are almost forced to locate in China. They license cutting edge technology from universities or other companies and want to go into production quickly. There is not the expertise in the US so they go to China for a commercial scale demonstration project. Since that is China, they then go to full scale production there. The US loses out. All that expertise could stay here if we had more infrastructure.

Loss of Jobs & Expertise

Manufacturing accounted for one third of the jobs in 1950 and it has dropped to only 10% of the jobs in the US. The last two recessions in 2001 and 2008 took a fairly heavy toll on manufacturing companies. Massachusetts has lost jobs, but because of their hi-tech sector, they haven’t been hit as badly as some others have been. These sectors include medical, biotech and advanced electronic equipment.

Several people commented that despite the relatively good position of Massachusetts, that more work needed to be done to train workers for hi tech jobs.  Although there are not the studies proving it, a number of people commented that if was important to do something about the manufacturing base so that our innovation didn’t decline.