Composition of Glass

Glass can be generally divided into two groups: oxide glass and non-oxide glass. The ingredients of oxide glasses include oxides (chemical compounds that include oxygen). Non-oxide glasses are made from compounds that contain no oxides, and which often instead contain sulfides or metals. Oxide glasses are much more widely used commercially. The common types of glass discussed below are all oxide glasses.

Soda-lime glass is the kind of glass used for flat glass, most containers and electric light bulbs, and many other industrial and art objects. More than 90 percent of all glass is soda-lime glass. It has been made of almost the same materials for hundreds of years. The composition is about 72 percent silica (from sand), about 13 percent sodium oxide (from soda ash), about 11 percent calcium oxide (from limestone), and about 4 percent minor ingredients. Soda-lime glass is inexpensive, easy to melt and shape, and reasonably strong.

All glass container manufacturers use the same basic soda-lime composition, making the containers easy to recycle. Manufacturers sort the glass by color and then later reuse it in the production of new containers.

Soda-lead glass, commonly called crystal or lead glass, is made by substituting lead oxide for calcium oxide and often for part of the silica used in soda-lime glass. Soda-lead glass is easy to melt. It is much more expensive than soda-lime glass. Soda-lead glass has such beautiful optical properties that it is widely used for the finest tableware and art objects. In addition, lead oxide improves the electrical properties of glass.

Borosilicate glass is heat-shock resistant and better known by such trade names as Pyrex and Kimax. It contains about 80 percent silica, 4 percent sodium oxide, 2 percent alumina, and 13 percent boric oxide. Such glass is about three times as heat-shock resistant as soda-lime glass and is excellent for chemical and electrical uses. This glass makes possible such products as ovenware and beakers, test tubes, and other laboratory equipment.

Fused silica glass glass is a highly heat-shock resistant glass that consists entirely of silica. It can be heated to extremely high temperatures and then plunged into ice-cold water without cracking. Fused silica is expensive because exceptionally high temperatures must be maintained during production. It is used in laboratory glassware and optical fibers.

96 percent silica glass resists heat almost as well as fused silica, but it is less expensive to produce. It consists of a special borosilicate composition that has been made porous by chemical treatment. The pores shrink when the glass is heated, leaving a smooth, transparent surface. The glass is sold under the trade name Vycor.

Colored glass gets its coloring from certain oxides that are added to the glass. For example, 1 part of nickel oxide in 50,000 produces a tint that may range from yellow to purple, depending on the base glass. One part of cobalt oxide in 10,000 gives an intense blue. Red glasses are made with gold, copper, or selenium oxides. Other colors can be produced in glass with other chemicals.

 Steve W. Martin, Ph.D., Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Iowa State University.

Steve W. Martin, "Glass," Discovery Channel School, original content provided by World Book Online,
, August 2001.

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