Using the iridescent mother-of-pearl often found lining seashells, researchers have engineered a new composite glass with a greatly boosted resistance to impacts.
Glass’s transparency and durability make it the material of choice in countless applications. But whether it’s used “in a car, a building or a smartphone, glass components are always the weakest links and the most fragile in the entire system,” said Francois Barthelat, a mechanical engineer at McGill University in Montreal who devised the new glass with his colleagues. Under stress, the inherently brittle nature of glass means that preexisting flaws within it can spread, triggering sudden catastrophic failure.
Strategies to make glass more impact-resistant include lamination, which bonds two or more glass plates together with thin layers of resin or other polymers in between, and tempering, which toughens glass through reheating and rapid cooling. However, Barthelat and his colleagues think they can do better by looking to nature for inspiration.
For the past 15 years, they have focused on the structure and mechanics of mother-of-pearl, an opalescent impact-resistant material, also known as nacre, that helps shield the soft bodies of mollusks from strong predator jaws. “Animals take relatively weak ingredients—a brittle mineral, soft proteins—and turn them into a hard yet extremely tough armor,” Barthelat said.