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Eventually, glass was used in windows, and often could be quite beautiful, such as the stained-glass windows used in Middle Ages churches that survive to this day. Image: Adobe Stock

By Jamie Oberdick

Ceramics and glass are two materials that have been around since ancient times, yet many people outside of materials science are unaware of the impact they have on their lives beyond the obvious.

They truly have a long history. The oldest known instance of ceramics is believed to be the Venus of Dolní Vestonice, a figurine of a goddess found in what is today the Czech Republic. It dates back to around 28000 B.C. and is an example of ceramics as art. Glass, for its part, is relatively “younger,” with the earliest examples of manmade glass found in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3500 B.C.

Both materials evolved over the centuries and quickly found familiar roles in our society. Glass was made by melting silica, soda, and lime in a fiery furnace and was originally used for decorative purposes, such as jewelry or mosaics. Eventually, glass was used in windows, and often could be quite beautiful, such as the stained-glass windows used in Middle Ages churches that survive to this day.

As the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century ushered in a new era, glass found new uses. Mass production enabled lower cost windows, eyeglasses and mirrors, and advances in optical glass drove development of glass innovations such as new and better lenses for telescopes and microscopes. At the end of the century, growing use of electricity raised demand of the newly invented glass incandescent light bulb.

Glass technologies raced ahead in the 20th Century, as new development of new types of glass such as laminated, tempered, and wired cast glass enabled new ideas in architectural glazing, with “all-glass” skyscrapers becoming a larger and larger part of city skylines. As the electronic age dawned, glass played a significant role with glass fiber optic cables transmitting voice and data across the globe at remarkably high speeds. The creation of strong glasses such as Corning’s Gorilla Glass, developed in part by Penn State faculty member John Mauro, has put glass in our pocket in the form of smartphones.

Ceramics, on the other hand, have also evolved from everyday uses such as food and water storage in ancient times to a growing “behind the scenes” role in our everyday modern lives. As ancient civilizations in places such as Greece and China became more sophisticated in their ceramic production, ceramics became both practical and artistic. For example, intricate Chinese porcelain vessels from centuries ago survive to this day in museums as a testament to both the practical and the beautiful.

Like glass, the Industrial Revolution was a real game-changer for ceramics. Factories took advantage of new techniques and technologies like steam-powered engines to mass produce ceramics ranging from china and other housewares to building materials such as cement and concrete (which are in fact ceramics).

Today, ceramic technology is advancing fast, including research carried out at the Materials Research Institute (MRI) and other areas around Penn State. Ceramics can be 3D printed, enabling new ceramic designs. Ceramics hold potential as materials for energy storage, and even energy creation through processes such as piezoelectrics and ferroelectrics. Ceramics work well within the human body, giving ceramics a huge role in biomaterials such as bone implants and artificial joints.

Some of these advances were carried out at Penn State. For example, retired director of MRI, Carlo Pantano, is considered a pioneer of modern glass research. His ground-breaking work ranged from using glass for safe long-term immobilization of nuclear waste to lab-on-a-chip technology to renewable energy. For this legacy, he was awarded the George W. Morey Award for new and original work in the field of glass science and technology in 2005.

On the ceramics side, Della M. Roy carried out research at Penn State that was so impactful, it enabled her to become the first woman elected to the World Academy of Ceramics. Her work around the engineering of cement and concrete included developing porous biomaterials for bone repair and chemically bonded ceramics, just to name a few.

In the SPRING 2023 issues of Focus on Materials, we look at innovative glass and ceramics research being done at Penn State. This includes research on building housing for future inhabitants of the Moon and Mars, methods of manufacturing glass and ceramics at a much lower carbon footprint, the role of these materials in brand-new field of regenerative medicine, and more. While both materials have been around for thousands of years, humanity has not finished exploring their potential. And that is especially true at Penn State.