August 14, 2015

Molecular scientists unexpectedly produce new type of glass

UChicago researchers co-led experiments that produced glass with an organized
molecular structure, a material previously thought to be entirely amorphous and random.
Copyright Wokandapix

(August 14, 2015)  When Prof. Juan de Pablo and his collaborators set about to explain unusual peaks in what should have been featureless optical data, they thought there was a problem in their calculations. In fact, what they were seeing was real. The peaks were an indication of molecular order in a material thought to be entirely amorphous and random: Their experiments had produced a new kind of glass.

Their unforeseen discovery, reported in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and chosen by Science as an editor’s choice paper in Materials Science, could offer a simple way to improve the efficiency of electronic devices such as light-emitting diodes, optical fibers and solar cells. It also could have important theoretical implications for understanding the still surprisingly mysterious materials called glasses.

“This is a big surprise,” de Pablo said. “Randomness is almost the defining feature of glasses. At least we used to think so. What we have done is to demonstrate that one can create glasses where there is some well-defined organization. And now that we understand the origin of such effects, we can try to control that organization by manipulating the way we prepare these glasses.”

De Pablo is a theorist and the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. He and Ivan Lyubimov, a postdoctoral fellow in his group, worked with a group of experimentalists led by Mark Ediger at the University of Wisconsin, doing computer simulations of their physical experiments.

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