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Glass Aircraft?

by John M. White |

Scientists have made a breakthrough discovery in the bizarre properties of glass, which behaves at times like both a solid and a liquid.  The finding could lead to aircraft that look like Wonder Woman's plane. Such planes could have wings of glass or something called metallic glass, rather than being totally invisible.  The breakthrough involved solving the decades-old problem of just what glass is.

Like cars in a traffic jam, atoms in a glass are in something like suspended animation, unable to reach their destination because the route is blocked by their neighbors.  So even though glass is a hard substance, it never quite becomes a proper solid, according to chemists and materials scientists.

Work so far has concentrated on trying to understand the traffic jam, but now Paddy Royall from the University of Bristol in England, with colleagues in Canberra, Australia and Tokyo, has shown that glass fails to be a solid due to the special atomic structures that form in a glass when it cools.

Preventing jetliner disasters

Knowing the structure formed by atoms as a glass cools represents a major breakthrough in the understanding of meta-stable materials and will allow further development of new strong yet light materials called metallic glasses, Royall said, which is already used to make some golf clubs.  This stuff is generally shiny black in color, not transparent, due to having a lot of free electrons (think of mercury in an old thermometer).

Metals normally crystallize when they cool, but stress builds up along the boundaries between crystals, which can lead to metal failure.  For example, the world's first jetliner, the British built De Havilland Comet, fell out of the sky due to metal failure. When metals are be made to cool with the same internal structure as a glass and without crystal grain boundaries, they are less likely to fail.

So you may soon be flying in glass airplanes.  As the old adage says, if you fly in glass airplanes don't throw the first rock!

Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch!


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