Thinnest glass ever is just two atoms thick. Does it shatter?

A microscopic photo of a sheet of glass only two atoms thick blends with an artist's conception to show the structural rendering.
A microscopic photo of a sheet of glass only two atoms thick blends with an artist’s conception to show the structural rendering.
(Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science)

A small pane of glass just two atoms thick has entered the 2014 Guinness Book of World Records as the thinnest sheet of glass in the world.

That’s cool, but we wanted to know whether such a thin piece of glass would shatter if you hit it with your pinky finger, or even just breathed on it.

“It can break, but it is actually much more flexible than regular glass,” said David Muller, who runs a physics lab at Cornell University where the thin glass was first observed.

“You can bend it a lot more without it shattering, but it will eventually break,” he said.


The record-breaking sheet of glass is stronger than a soap bubble, but would probably tear if a person blew on it hard, said Muller.

And, you can’t see it. But that’s not because it’s incredibly thin. Like most glass, it is transparent.

Muller and his colleagues came across the super-thin glass on accident. He and his students were working with scientists at the University of Ulm in Germany to grow graphene, a strong and very thin material made of carbon atoms. But when the German researchers looked at the graphene they had made, they saw something unusual on its surface.

They sent the sample to Muller’s lab, where he was able to analyze the sample with a powerful electron microscope that can see individual atoms.

“My student put it in the microscope, and we were just more and more amazed,” Muller said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It was like a cartoon of the structure of glass in an undergraduate textbook. We were blown away.”

Muller was that excited because nobody had ever seen the structure of glass first-hand before. Its basic structure had been hypothesized and sketched in 1932 by the physicist W.H. Zachariasen, but there had never been a piece of glass thin enough to see whether Zachariasen’s sketch was accurate.

“Normal, everyday bulk glass is millions and millions of atoms thick, so when you try to look through it, you just see a mess -- there are atoms everywhere,” Muller said. “But this stuff is so thin, none of the atoms overlap.”

With this super-thin glass, Muller was able to confirm that Zachariasen had it right all those years ago: The structure of glass looks like the structure of a liquid, but frozen in time.

In hindsight, the scientists think there was an air leak in the chamber where the graphene was growing that caused the glass to form.

Since Muller and his team discovered the super-thin glass in 2012, other scientists have been able to make it on other metals besides graphene. Muller said it could eventually find its way into small electronics and batteries.

In the meantime, that first piece of glass is still tucked away in his lab.

“We’ve had it stable there for over a year and it is still going strong,” he said.

No shattering yet.

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