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Glass That Bends, But Won't Break

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It may soon be possible for people in glass houses to throw stones, chuck wine glasses, but still not hit each other over the head with wine bottles, please.

Researchers at McGill University say they're close to developing a kind of glass that will bend, but not break.

In a paper published earlier this week, a team at the school's Department of Mechanical Engineering touted glass that's 200 times stronger than the usual variety.

Their inspiration?

The mighty mollusk.

According to the McGill team, led by Prof. François Barthelat, shellfish "boast unusual combinations of stiffness, strength and toughness currently unmatched by engineering materials."

The reason for their durability lies in high levels of minerals -- shells are made up of about 95 per cent chalk.

"But nacre, or mother-of-pearl, which coats the inner shells, is made up of microscopic tablets that are a bit like miniature Lego building blocks, is known to be extremely strong and tough," Barthelat said in a news release, "which is why people have been studying its structure for the past twenty years.”

But the mollusk is a fortress unto itself.

“Imagine trying to build a Lego wall with microscopic building blocks," Barthelat said. "It’s not the easiest thing in the world.”

So what does an engineering scientist do? Barthelat's team zeroed in on the edges in those natural enamels -- the relatively weaker boundaries that allow some flex in the structure. Then they laser-engraved similar networks in glass, adding so-called micro-cracks.

"Compared with standard glass, which has no microstructure and is brittle, our bio-inspired glass displays built-in mechanisms that make it more deformable and 200 times tougher."

So, a fallen drinking glass may bounce a little -- but only show a little deformation from its tumble. The contents of the glass, however -- well, that's on you.

You can read the full study here.

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