How Modern Glass is Made
In the past, glass was discovered by chance. Extreme heat refined the necessary materials into glass, which went on to become a pottery and jewelry mainstay from 3500 BC onward.
In the modern era, glass sees much more use. It's a material that makes up windows, mirrors, windshields, screens, light bulbs, and more, so its importance is hard to overstate. Producing it doesn't require the happenstance of the past, thanks to factories, manufacturers, and professionals across the globe. The secrets to making glass have long since been revealed and turned into standardized processes.
The Ingredients that Go into Making Glass
Heat, (a Lot of It!) Plus 3 Natural Materials
Technically, it's possible for glass to be naturally produced by the environment. Volcanic eruptions can turn the right minerals into obsidian, which is known for its glassy exterior. Even today, heat is a prime ingredient in making glass, though it can take as much as 1700 degrees Celsius to make anything happen. The key to the process lies in the ingredients used, which usually comes down to three distinct parts.
Sand, Sodium Carbonate & Calcium Oxide
- 1 Sand is the main ingredient, largely because of the silica it holds within. Silica forms the backbone of glass while helping to lend it the expected hardness, but the drawback is that it has an extremely high melting point of 2000 degrees Celsius.
- 2 The second ingredient, sodium carbonate, helps tend to that. By lowering silica's melting point to half of what it would normally take, the glass-making process becomes much easier.
- 3 The downside is that it makes the finished glass water soluble, so the calcium oxide extracted from limestone nullifies that effect.
Other Materials can also be Used to Change Glass Properties
The mix of those three ingredients forms the basis of glass. Even so, it's possible to change the properties of the final product by using other elements and chemicals as additives.
- Using iron creates glass that can absorb infrared energy and heat, which makes it a good fit for filters in movie projectors.
- Meanwhile, adding lead to a mixture leads to glass that creates stronger reflections, and can be cut more easily.
- Depending on the oxide used, it's even possible to give glass a range of different colors for various bottles' use.
The Glass-Making Process
Gathering and melting the ingredients is only part of the procedure. Manufacturers can take the molten materials and work with them accordingly, depending on the end product needed.
Common Variations in Making Glass
They can either pour the melted mix into molds for making various types of containers, or they can dispense it onto vats of molten tin metal to make flat sheets. This is called the float glass method.
The Float Glass Method for Making Flat Glass Products
The float glass process is carried out via a long and continuous line of machines. Once combined with recycled glass, the mixture goes through several heating stages while impurities get removed. While the first step can take as much as 50 hours, it's also a way to insure quality as well as add ingredients that change the product's properties.
- 1 The molten mix that results is poured onto the metal, where its thickness is controlled by how long it's allowed to settle.
- 2 After that, chemical vapors are used to coat the glass to change its appearance and properties.
- 3 The cooling process follows, and once completed, the glass is inspected by lasers to detect and remove problem areas.
- 4 If it passes, then diamond wheel cutters will move in to slice the glass and create a properly-sized final product.
Using Heat and Compressed Air for Making Hollow Glass Items
While the float glass method is a good fit for making flat products, there are still ways to make specific items like bottles, jars, light bulbs, and drinking glasses. By pressing molten glass into a mold and cooling it to maintain its shape, heat and compressed air can make the glass push against the mold's sides. In doing so, the shape of the item can be realized and maintained.
An extra round of reheating removes stress from the process while preventing the bottle from breaking, and then the product is cooled in a temperature-controlled kiln. While it's possible to create glass products by blowing into a traditional pipe and mold, modern machines can make as many as 600 bottles per minute.
A Versatile Material that is Customizable by Changing Ingredients or Manufacturing Processes
Part of what makes glass such a valuable resource is its versatility. Not only can it be used in various ways, but it can be custom-made to fit the needs of a client or manufacturer.
It's possible to accomplish that during various steps of the process, so it's a safe bet that no two types of glass are exactly alike. Still, it's thanks to those potential variables that manufactures have such an interest in glass, and how to produce it for modern consumers. Glass may not seem like much at a glance, but it's hard to imagine a world without it!