Glass seems pretty perfect the way it is, but researchers are constantly looking for ways to make it better. University of Chicago researchers stumbled on a new type of glass while studying tiny, sturdy little creatures called water bears or tardigrades. The microscopic animals produce a strange protective glass coating unlike any researchers have seen before, and it may have human applications that lead to more efficient lighting and solar power technology.
Water bears are tiny eight-legged sea creatures that can withstand a huge range of temperatures, from just above absolute zero to well over water’s boiling point. And they really are very tiny, measuring just 0.5 mm (0.020 in) in adulthood. Because of their incredibly small stature and curiously strong nature, water bears are of great interest to researchers hoping to uncover the secrets to their survival.
The glass discovery came about after researchers dried out the tiny animals and then revived them years later by rehydrating them. The little creatures protect themselves in their dehydrated state by producing a coating of glass. “When you remove the water, they very quickly coat themselves in large amounts of glassy molecules,” says Juan de Pablo, professor in molecular engineering at the University of Chicago. “That’s how they stay in this state of suspended animation.”
The glass the water bears produce is unlike any researchers have seen previously in nature. It has the molecular structure of a liquid, but is physically a solid material. Researchers think this new type of glass could have potential in technological applications, such as increasing the efficiency of electronic devices like LEDs, optical fibers, and solar cells.