Scientists Accidentally Create World's Thinnest Glass That's Two Atoms Thick

First Posted: Sep 12, 2013 12:27 PM EDT

It's a new world record: glass that's just a molecule thick. This two-atom-thick sheet of glass wasn't created on purpose, though. It turns out that scientists at Cornell and Germany's University of Ulm accidentally formed the glass.

The "pane" of glass is so thin that its individual silicon and oxygen atoms are clearly visible with the use of electron microscopy. In fact, it's made into the Guinness World Records 2014 Edition. Despite its thin nature, though, researchers didn't create it on purpose.

How is this even possible? The scientists were actually working on making graphene, a two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms in a chicken wire formation, on copper foils in a quartz furnace. During the course of their experiment, the researchers noticed some "muck" on the graphene. This "muck" turned out to be the elements of everyday glass.

The scientists think that the glass formed when an air leak caused the copper to react with the quartz. This created silicon and oxygen, producing the glass layer on the would-be pure graphene. They had created the world's thinnest layer of glass.

Yet this glass isn't just a novelty; it also has implications for understanding the fundamental structure of glass. In the past, scientists have had no way to directly see glass. While the material behaves like a solid, it was thought to look more like a liquid. Now, the researchers have produced a picture of individual atoms of glass that looks strikingly like a diagram drawn in 1932 by W.H. Zachariasen.

"This is the work that, when I look back at my career, I will be the most proud of," said David A. Muller, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It's the first time that anyone has been able to see the arrangement of atoms in a glass."

The findings are published in the journal Nano Letters.

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