September 15, 2013

Discovery of Thinnest Glass Shatters World Records

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An accidental discovery by researchers at Cornell and the University of Ulm in Germany has led to an earth-shattering entry in the 2014 Guinness Book World Records: the world’s thinnest sheet of glass, at just a molecule thick.

The glass was discovered in the lab of Prof. David Muller Ph.D. ’96, applied and engineering physics, who is also the co-director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science.

The researchers were originally working with graphene, a strong, flexible and versatile material created from a single layer of carbon atoms.

Graphene — the strongest material known to man, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology news article –– could potentially have many applications given its impressive conductive capabilities.

The record-breaking finding arose when scientists observed some “muck” found on the graphene, which turned out to be a two-dimensional sheet of ordinary glass composed of carbon and silicon atoms. The “pane” of glass was so thin that its individual atoms could only be seen through the use of an electron microscope.

The creation of the glass layer was caused by an air leak that had caused copper foils to react with the quartz furnace the graphene was being created on, according to a University press release.

Scientists, who for decades have tried to understand the structure of glass — which has the appearance of a solid, but has an atom arrangement similar to that of a liquids’ — can perhaps find an answer in this latest discovery.

The structure of the two-dimensional glass found by the researchers is similar to a theoretical diagram of the arrangement of atoms in glass drawn by W.H. Zachariasen in 1932, according to the press release.

The glass pane’s structure enables the glass to be bent to a greater degree than regular glass, according to The Los Angeles Times. However, if someone were to blow on it hard, it would likely tear, Muller said, according to The Los Angeles Times.

“This is the work that, when I look back at my career, I will be most proud of,” Muller said, in the a University press release. “It’s the first time that anyone has been able to see the arrangement of atoms in a glass.”

The discovery and potential use of this two-dimensional glass could lead to improvements in nanotechnology and the performance of computer and smartphone processors, the press release said.

Guinness world officials first noticed the lab’s work through an article in Nano Letters published in January 2012. The finding is featured in the 2014 Guinness World Records Book’s 21st Century Science spread, which was released on Sept. 12.

The research at Cornell was funded by the National Science Foundation through the Cornell Center for Materials Research.