5 times glass led to scientific discoveries that changed the world

That itch to explain the world around us is just human nature. And even when we solve one question, a few more pop up.

While scientific discovery will always be the product of close observation and testing, researchers today have incredibly sophisticated tools at their fingertips. They’re answering questions through advanced underground laboratories, massive telescopes, and 192-beam lasers, each of which is aided by a crucial piece of glass.

In fact, from test tubes to sight glasses, glass plays a significant role in research and scientific advancement. Here are five examples of glass playing a critical role in scientific discoveries that help shape our understanding of some of the largest forces on Earth and in the universe.

What Newton wanted to know: Isaac Newton was so fascinated yet perplexed by light, he spent years studying it. Otto Schott, Carl Zeiss, and Ernst Abbe (the grandfathers of SCHOTT) owe a lot to Newton’s famous work Opticks, but the trio pushed the field forward by refining optical glass.

Zeiss ran an optical and precision machining workshop, and his silent partner, Abbe, was a trained physicist working on the theoretical principles of optical imaging. But Zeiss needed a better quality glass for his microscopes and lenses, so he turned to Schott, an expert in glass melting and the chemistry of glass.

Buoyed by Abbe’s physics principles, Schott developed specialized glass for Zeiss’s microscopes, and these glass lenses gave the world a better understanding of the refractive and dispersion properties of light. Scientists got a better look at the world around us, and similar lenses are still being used in microscopes so we can see at the molecular level, and in telescopes to gaze up at celestial bodies.

Just what are neutrinos? Neutrinos are funny little particles – they spin and hold no electrical charge, but have mass and can change their type as they travel from the Sun to the Earth. That’s what Japanese researcher Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald, from Canada, discovered at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO), which earned them a Nobel Prize in 2015.

The SNO is buried two kilometers beneath Canadian soil, where this 10-story telescope uses photomultipliers to detect individual neutrinos. As the particles pass through a 12-foot-diameter sphere filled with about 1,000 tons of high-purity heavy water, they produce individual photons. The telescope’s 12,000 sensors detect the photons, amplify them, and measure their energy.

Surrounding each photomultiplier is a SCHOTT-made glass bulb with special optical and chemical properties that permits ultraviolet radiation from the photons to pass through without damaging or degrading the light. This quality gave Kajita and McDonald better data on neutrinos, which isn’t easy to come by. Their findings explain why previous research couldn’t account for all neutrinos that physics models predicted, and added to the standard model of particle physics.

The black hole spotter: High on a Chinese mountaintop is the Lijiang optical telescope, which has an eye for black holes. In 2015, scientists announced the Lijiang telescope and a group of others found a huge black hole from the early universe – 12 billion times the mass of our Sun.

The telescope uses ZERODUR® glass ceramic as its mirror substrate. ZERODUR’s thermal coefficient of near zero makes it perfect for staring into space for long periods of time without degrading images or data. And by collecting the data from the Lijiang telescope and a number of other optical telescopes, scientists found that this gargantuan black hole formed during the universe’s infancy.

Studying this black hole and its quasar will give astronomers new fodder for learning how quasars form, how black holes grow, and the underpinnings of the early history of the universe.

Speedy particles and nuclear detection: At California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists are playing with lasers. The National Ignition Facility is home to an inertial confinement fusion laser, and it’s increasing our understanding of nuclear fusion.

This 192-beam laser is built with huge panels of SCHOTT-produced neodymium laser glass; each glass plate measures 745 mm x 425 mm x 45 mm. A deep violet, this glass is manufactured with a special chemical composition and precise engineering, which ensures its beam focuses on one spot and lasts for just a few milliseconds.

Since 2009, the laser has been used to test hydrogen fusion. Now it’s helping scientists better understand nuclear testing, the formation of planets and stars, and fusion as a clean energy source.

Spotting an about-to-pop volcano: Dr. Donald Dingwell, the Secretary General of the European Research Council, studies volcanoes. He discovered the rate molten rock rises during a Plinian eruption, for example. But he also studies glass.

In his lab, Dingwell simulates volcanic activity by heating rocks to extreme temperatures and then releasing the built-up pressure, causing an eruption. He then studies the chemistry of the ejected particles, some of which are glass fragments that are created in the furnace of this man-made volcano.

By studying these glass fragments, Dingwell and his researchers are attempting to learn what’s happening in a volcano before and after it bursts. Studying volcanic activity in the time between the trigger for an eruption and the eruption itself can lead to better monitoring and help in alerting the public of immediate dangers.

Glass: A timeless scientific component

The exploration of science looks very different now than it did five centuries ago. Galileo never saw the huge optical telescopes we use today to search deep into space, but he did know that looking up into the stars through a piece of glass could answer some questions about the cosmos.

As a component, glass is critical in fields like medicine, space exploration, and energy. It can be made into small ampoules holding the next breakthrough vaccine, and scaled up to the size of huge discs several meters in diameter for optical telescopes. In either case, glass can help us answer the big questions that have long left us wondering: “Why?”

June 30, 2016


Rina Della Vecchia
Marketing & Communication
SCHOTT North America, Inc.