For the longest time, Gorilla glass was an innovation in search of a use.
The substance was first produced in 1960 by an American glass and ceramics company, Corning Inc, which was called Corning Glass works at the time. The discovery came out of an initiative known as “Project Muscle”, which aimed to produce the strongest possible glass. The project was a great success, but it turned out there were no obvious applications in which the process was commercially viable. Other than incorporation into a handful of racing cars in which weight was a key issue, it just didn’t seem to have an application that was worth the extra effort.
The innovation was nearly forgotten about for a considerable period of time, almost 50 years, until a chance query from Apple director, Steve Jobs, brought it back to the forefront again.
Standard glass formulations are typically very hard, but often very brittle, and it can be difficult to further increase hardness (and hence scratch resistance) without making them even less flexible. Smart phone applications require a very thin screen, and Apple initially had problems producing a screen that was flexible enough but still scratch resistant. Apple contacted Corning directly with the problem, and the previous research was recalled. Despite some skepticism about the economic viability of the process, a means was determined to produce the substance in large enough quantities and it was found to be ideal for the application and de-mothballed from Corning’s research archives.
Normal glass is the starting point for the process, but this is then hardened using an ion exchange process. This involves immersing sheets of glass in a bath of molten potassium. The bath causes sodium ions to leave the glass and be replaced by larger potassium ions, resulting in a denser structural lattice. As the glass cools it is then placed under high pressure to create a dense, highly compressed final product.
Corning has done very well out of its one time white elephant. Production of the material was worth 170 million dollars a year as of 2010. The millions will only increase as demand for tablet devices increases, and Corning now supplies the material to a range of different electronic and technical manufacturers.
The company announced a lighter, stronger Gorilla glass earlier this year, and their new innovation is the recently announced “willow glass” that makes for even thinner and more flexible screens. This will potentially open up an even wider range of applications, such as wearable screens and interfaces.
==== About the Author ====
Francis Lawson is a freelance writer specializing in technology and related issues such as useful innovations or protection for your technological devices such as kindle fire cases.