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X-ray Videos Reveal Mysteries Of Melting Glass

April 17, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging
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You wouldn’t think you’d need X-rays to image glass. But a new industrial imaging technique is allowing researchers to see exactly how bits of sand and other materials fuse at various temperatures (extremely hot temperatures) to form glass.

That is a big deal because figuring out how to produce high-quality glass at lower temperatures could save energy. A LOT of energy. According to a news release from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, the global glass industry’s energy consumption was 86.5 terawatt hours in 2005; the entire electricity production of the Netherlands in 2008 was 108 TWh.

Glass is formed by the high-temperature fusion of silica—quartz sand—and other crystalline materials, all in powder form. Industrial foundries heat the powder mixture to about 1,500ºC and keep it there for days in order to eliminate bubbles, grains that don’t quite melt, and other imperfections.

Silica by itself has a melting temperature of 1,700ºC. Adding carbonates triggers chemical reactions that lower the melting temperature. To observe exactly how individual grains of glass powder melt together at various temperatures, ESRF researchers used X-ray microtomography, which sends a fine, intense beam of X-rays through the sample. Marco Di Michiel of the ESRF explained:

We can take a microtomography image with a spatial resolution of 1.6 micrometers every few seconds. Observing fast changes with a high spatial resolution deep inside an oven held at close to 1,000ºC is impossible without X-rays.

Well, yes, we suppose it would be.

The ESRF news release includes links to videos showing grains fusing into molten glass. “I have been working on these processes for many years,” said Emmanuelle Gouillart, who led the research team, “and it was absolutely fascinating to see like in a movie what happens at the onset of the powder/glass transition.”

Fascinating? Um, yeah, it is kind of interesting. But from our perspective of not having worked for many years on glass processes, we wouldn’t go so far as “fascinating.”

Anyway, those who do find it spellbinding can look for more details in a study published online last month in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society. The researchers see lots of potential for this imaging technique to improve other industrial processes involving reactive granular mixtures.

Related seminar: Diagnostic Imaging Review: For Residents, Fellows and Radiologists

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