We don’t focus much on the glass industry when we talk about cutting carbon emissions. We focus on transportation, electricity generation, cement production, shipping, and air travel, but overlook glass-making. And yet, manufacturing glass is responsible for about 86 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. That’s not an insignificant sum.
On June 30, 2023, Penn State University announced LionGlass, a new product that is ten times more resistant to damage than soda lime silicate glass and uses about half as much energy in the manufacturing process. The research team recently filed a patent application as a first step toward bringing the product to market. Unfortunately, the photo included in the press release tells us almost nothing about LionGlass.
Changing The Way Glass Is Made
“Our goal is to make glass manufacturing sustainable for the long term,” said John Mauro, a professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State and lead researcher on the project. “LionGlass eliminates the use of carbon containing batch materials and significantly lowers the melting temperature of glass.”
Soda lime silicate glass, the common glass used in everyday items from windows to glass tableware, is made by melting three primary materials: quartz sand, soda ash, and limestone. Soda ash is sodium carbonate and limestone is calcium carbonate, both of which release carbon dioxide as they are melted. (Limestone is also a prime reason why making cement releases so much carbon dioxide.) “During the glass melting process, the carbonates decompose into oxides and produce carbon dioxide, which gets released into the atmosphere,” Mauro said.
The majority of the carbon dioxide emissions come from the energy required to heat furnaces to the high temperatures needed for melting glass. With LionGlass, the melting temperatures are lowered by about 300 to 400 degrees Celsius. That in turn leads to about a 30% reduction in energy consumption compared to conventional soda lime glass.
LionGlass Is Almost Unbreakable
Not only is LionGlass easier on the environment, it’s also much stronger than conventional glass. The researchers said they were surprised to find that the new glass, named after Penn State’s Nittany Lion mascot, possesses significantly higher crack resistance compared to conventional glass.
Some of the team’s glass compositions had such a strong crack resistance that the glass would not crack, even under a one kilogram-force load from a Vickers diamond indenter. LionGlass is at least 10 times as crack-resistant compared to standard soda lime glass, which forms cracks under a load of about 0.1 kilograms of force. The researchers explained that the limits of LionGlass have not yet been found, because they reached the maximum load allowed by the indentation equipment. “We kept increasing the weight on LionGlass until we reached the maximum load the equipment will allow,” said Nick Clark, a postdoctoral fellow in Mauro’s lab. “It simply wouldn’t crack.”
Mauro explained that crack resistance is one of the most important qualities to test for in glass because it is how the material eventually fails. Over time, glass develops microcracks along the surface, which become weak points. When a piece of glass breaks, it’s due to weaknesses caused by existing microcracks. Glass that is resistant to forming microcracks in the first place is especially valuable, he added.
“Damage resistance is a particularly important property for glass,” Mauro said. “Think about all the ways we rely on the strength of glass, in the automotive industry and electronics industry, architecture, and communication technology like fiber optic cables. Even in health care, vaccines are stored in strong, chemically resistant glass packaging. Mauro is hoping that the improved strength of LionGlass means the products created from it can be lighter weight. Since LionGlass is 10 times more damage resistant than current glass, it could be significantly thinner.
Thinner & Lighter
“We should be able to reduce the thickness and still get the same level of damage resistance,” Mauro said. “If we have a lighter weight product, that is even better for the environment because we use less raw materials and need less energy to produce it. Even downstream, that reduces the energy required to transport the glass, so it’s a winning situation for everyone.”
Mauro notes that the research team is still evaluating the potential of LionGlass. They have filed a patent application for the entire family of glass, which means there are many compositions within the LionGlass family, each with its own distinct properties and potential applications. They are now in the process of exposing various compositions of LionGlass to an array of chemical environments to study how it reacts. The results will help the team develop a better understanding of how LionGlass can be used throughout the world.
“Humans learned how to manufacture glass more than 5,000 years ago and since then it has been critical to bringing modern civilization to where it is today,” Mauro said. “Now, we are at a point in time when we need it to help shape the future, as we face global challenges such as environmental issues, renewable energy, energy efficiency, health care and urban development. Glass can play a vital role in solving these issues, and we are ready to contribute.”
Potential Uses For LionGlass
There are any number of potential benefits to LionGlass. Maybe Elon Musk could use it in the Cybertruck so its glass wouldn’t break when hit with a sledgehammer during demonstrations. Tesla glass roofs are already remarkably strong, but might they be even stronger and lighter if they were made of LionGlass?
Solar panels use a sheet of glass to protect their inner workings from the elements. Imagine if tomorrow’s solar panels could be made more durable while also being lighter, thanks to LionGlass. Lighter panels would put less stress on rooftops and racking systems, potentially leading to lower costs for solar installations.
The upshot of this news is that researchers are constantly finding new ways to do common things like make steel or cement in a way that slashes carbon emissions. Just imagine if the world had begun that quest in earnest in 1988 when Dr. James Hansen first testified before Congress about the connection between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global heating.
The world of science is finding all sorts of new ways to make the products modern societies want and need in a way that is less damaging to the Earth’s environment. Stronger glass with lower emissions is just one of them, but it could well be part of a mix of new products that don’t require destruction of the environment in order to be commercially successful.
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