Q
What are the applications of glass?
A
What are the applications of glass?
The term 'glass' refers to a state of matter, usually produced when a viscous molten material is cooled rapidly to below its glass transition temperature, with insufficient time for a regular crystal lattice to form. Consequently a key feature is that glasses have structures that are liquid-like i.e. not crystalline; this means that they lack the internal structural boundaries present in most other materials. So they are typically transparent to light, although this can also depend on their composition. As a result they are enormously valuable for windows, containers, ovenware, tableware, lighting, and optical fibres for telecommunications (underpinning the internet and mobile phones).
The most familiar chemical forms of glass are the silica-based materials used for architectural and automotive glazings, containers, table glassware, glass wool for heat insulation and decorative objects. These compositions have a high viscosity in the molten state which:aids glass formation, as the constituent ions can only re-arrange themselves with difficulty,
and makes possible fabrication into a multitude of shapes as the melt is cooled.
An area in which glasses are playing a vital role is in reducing the world’s carbon footprint. For example this picture shows the parabolic glass mirrors (silver coated) of a solar thermal power plant in the Mojave Desert, California capable of generating 350 MW.

But glasses can be made from many different compositions using a wide variety of processes to give products with an even wider range of properties and applications than found for silica based systems. These are less familiar but form the basis for a wide range of speciality glasses such as optical materials, laboratory glass, cooktop panels, display screens, glass fibers for reinforcement of plastics, amplifiers, multiplexers and switches for optical fibre telecommunication systems.
A wide range of additional glass applications result from glasses that have been treated to give them added value (functional glasses). Such glasses typically possess surface properties different from the bulk ones due to chemical or thermal treatment, coatings or surface structuring. The Romans for example were able to produce beautiful artistic effects using technically challenging surface modification.
These days techniques such as laser structuring are able to modify a glass surface on an amazingly fine scale. This picture, for example, shows a planar diffractive microlens with a diameter of just 0.6 mm .
Glasses will dissolve a wide variety of different materials such as the oxides of chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese and nickel to produce a rainbow of colours. Each element of the coloured components in this Medieval Stained Glass Window (11th Century, Augsburg, Germany) consists of an individually produced coloured glass sheet cut to the required shape any held in place by lead cames. In this window enamelling with black stain was used to add fine detail.
Later people learned how to use silver stains to produce local areas on clear sheets that were coloured yellow or orange. This same basic technology of ion exchange is now used to strengthen fine objects such as wine glasses and to produce thin channels in the surface of glass sheets that can guide light, just as optical fibres do.

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