How research on glass can help us better understand various problems in Earth and Materials sciences?

Wednesday 13 December 2017
The silicate melt is poured on a graphite plate to make glass (composite image with smashed cell phone screen as an overlay). Image credit: Stuart Hay, ANU.

The new data will help understanding the mobility of lavas in volcanic environments

An international study on glass led by Dr Charles Le Losq, from ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, proposes a new vision of the atomic structure of alumino-silicate glasses and melts.

This new research can help understanding many problems in Earth and Materials sciences. Indeed, alumino-silicate melts represent most of the Earth' lavas, and are commonly used by the glass industry.

The distribution of metallic elements, such as sodium and potassium, in such alumino-silicate glasses and melts is usually considered as random. The new research challenges this idea by showing that sodium and potassium are not randomly distributed, but form cluster and even channels of atoms that percolate through a network of silicium and aluminium oxide polyhedra.

Such nano-arrangements dramatically affect the physical and thermodynamic properties of melts and glasses.

Dr Le Losq said the research findings shed light on the crucial role that lava oceans and volcanoes played in the geological evolution of Earth.

The researchers measured the viscosity of the melts and the density of the glass when cooled and formed, and the new data will help understanding the mobility of lavas in volcanic environments.

"Our research findings allow better modelling of present volcanic activity, as well as of the lavas involved in the original formation of Earth and its surface," Dr Le Losq said.

Not limited to Earth sciences, the research can further help improving glass products. Dr Le Losq said the research could inform ways to produce glass suitable for storing nuclear waste more effectively than current practices.

Furthermore, the new knowledge, based on experiments and computer modelling, could be used to alter the structure of glass to improve resistance to fractures.  

"Everyone knows how frustrating it is when you drop your mobile device and get a large crack in the screen," said Dr Le Losq from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences.

"The glasses we analysed are mostly composed of aluminium and silicon oxides, and can also contain various elements such as sodium, potassium, calcium or magnesium - each element influences the flexibility and resistance of the glass," Dr Le Losq said. "By better knowing the links between the glass chemical composition, structure and properties, we can hope producing better products for handheld devices."

The research builds on longstanding collaborations involving laboratories around the world, and scientists in the fields of chemistry, material science, physics and geochemistry.

ANU and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, France, jointly conducted this research, which is published in Scientific Reports, in collaboration with researchers from France, the United Kingdom and China.

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