Decoding the glass genome

Materials informatics provides efficient tools that can predict glass properties with increasing accuracy. SCHOTT experts are lifting the scientific methodology of glass development, founded by the ‘glass doctor’ Otto Schott in the 19th century, to the next level.

Materials informatics provides efficient tools that can predict glass properties with increasing accuracy. SCHOTT experts are lifting the scientific methodology of glass development, founded by the ‘glass doctor’ Otto Schott in the 19th century, to the next level.

Even as a young boy, Otto Schott was fascinated by his father’s glassmaking business. In 1879, the chemist began to study chemical elements as suitable ingredients for the fabrication of glass. Through his laboratory experiments, he discovered how the right chemical compound could be used to obtain desired glass properties. He discovered chemical relationships: his law of mixing was the first to quantitatively predict future glass properties such as refraction and thermal expansion from its chemical composition. This milestone was the starting point of modern glass science. For thousands of years, the production of glass had depended solely on the experience and experimental skills of the glass maker. Otto Schott forged ahead with his theories on the properties of glasses. Thus, within a period of time, he did not only develop innovative glasses (see info box) and fabrication processes, but also established specialty glass as a new industrial sector, turning SCHOTT into a global company.

“Contemporaries claimed that Otto Schott could look right into the heart of the glass. However, he was also the first to develop glasses by data processing. Today, with the rising performance of materials informatics, we can delve even deeper into his legacy, by looking into the genome of a material, you might say,” explains Senior Principal Scientist Dr. Ulrich Fotheringham. The physicist is engaged in material development and has been working at SCHOTT for more than 30 years, since the beginning of the 1990s when he initiated the collaboration with the Faculty of Physics at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz on computer-assisted glass development.

Mathematical modeling and simulation enable on-screen experiments in order to obtain insights into a real system or to make predictions. This accelerates and improves the material development process, aimed at shorter development times and innovation cycles. SCHOTT uses these methods in the optimization and development of almost all of its technological processes and products.

“Thanks to mathematical simulation, in modern glass-ceramic fabrication, crucial properties such as zero thermal expansion or color impression, can be precisely adjusted to the desired values.” Dr. Fotheringham explains.

The development of innovative materials with surprising qualities is also promoted. A ‘hot’ example is a new borosilicate glass, which is ideal as a fire protection safety glass. However, to achieve this quality, it must first be thermally toughened, a complex physicochemical process, the result of which largely hinges on the ’hidden parameters’ of the glass. “For the first time, we were able to determine these parameters through simulation, rather than painstaking experimentation, significantly reducing development time and cost,” continues Dr. Fotheringham.

In addition, the development of specialty glass ceramic powders for the next generation of battery technologies offers impressive potential for success in this attractive future market. The material is key to the production of innovative solid- state batteries, which are aimed at increasing the range of electric vehicles.

As these examples underline, the development of new products often hinges on new materials with improved properties. It is estimated that new materials are currently pivotal to around two out of three innovations. Materials informatics can quite literally act as a turbo effect. This emerging discipline has recently begun to draw on artificial intelligence, machine learning and automated analysis processes in data processing. Such concepts already support successful applications in other areas such as autonomous driving, speech recognition on mobile phones and the utilization of Internet data for user profiles and customized marketing. This involves powerful computers processing reams of data based on self-learning algorithms.

“With the help of machine learning, patterns and relationships can be extracted and predictions made – which is exactly what we are aiming for. However, such data volumes are not available to us in glass development,” says Dr. Benedikt Ziebarth, Principal Scientist Materials Informatics. While the Internet basically generates billions of data for free, a single datapoint in the field of materials science may well be the result of a measurement that has cost thousands of euros. “We therefore develop hybrid models that combine the small amount of material data with domain knowledge. This domain knowledge is present in the extensive toolbox of mathematical simulations and modeling already available at SCHOTT. We are also involved in relevant consortium projects,” adds Ziebarth. SCHOTT thus maintains a lively exchange with institutes and companies on the digitalization of material development. This shows that besides artificial intelligence, human intelligence is still a necessary part of the equation. SCHOTT is thus set to remain a prime address for upcoming generations of ‘glass doctors,’ true to the spirit of its founder, Otto Schott.

New glasses for the world

Otto Schott (1851–1935) was a pioneer of industrial glass fabrication who sparked a plethora of outstanding glass developments and applications in the 19th century.
Here are just a few examples:

1884: Optical glasses for improved microscopes
1884: Glass tubing for thermometer and water gauge glasses
1887/1893: Invention of chemically resistant, heat- and temperature-change
resistant borosilicate glass
1891: Borosilicate glass tubing for thermometers
1893: Laboratory glassware made of borosilicate glass
1894: Borosilicate glass cylinder for gas lighting
1894: Optical glasses (up to 140 cm in diameter) for refracting telescopes

Otto Schott is regarded as the inventor of specialty glass. He pioneered the development of glass with precisely defined properties.

June 18th, 2021


Christine Fuhr
Marketing & Communication