Perhaps because it is ubiquitous and usually transparent, says Himanshu Jain, glass makes most of its contributions to modern life without fanfare.
Automobiles and skyscrapers and some of the world’s finest art rely on glass, says Jain. So do airplanes and TVs, fiber optics and nuclear technologies, the Internet and, of course, eyeglasses.
Indeed, says Jain, glass plays a critical role in most of the 14 "grand challenges" that, according to the National Academy of Engineering, human beings need to solve in the 21st century. These include making solar energy economical, providing access to clean water, and preventing nuclear terror.
Jain, the Diamond Chair Professor of materials science and engineering at Lehigh, is principal investigator for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) International Materials Institute for New Functionalities in Glass. Housed at Lehigh, the IMI-NFG is a national program that seeks to increase the visibility of glass across the globe, to help students understand all of its varied uses, and to encourage more students to pursue careers in a field that historically has been low in numbers.
The IMI-NFG is also a partnership with Penn State University. Carlo Pantano, director of Penn State’s Materials Research Institute, is co-principal investigator of the IMI-NFG.
The IMI-NFG recently won a second five-year contract from NSF, which provided the institute with its founding grant in 2004. The new grant, which was awarded after a national competition, totals $3.75 million and will be matched in part by support from the university.
Six International Materials Institutes were established by NSF at American universities in 2003 and 2004. Only the IMI-NFG has been renewed for a second five-year term. A new IMI was recently established at Northwestern University to promote research into solar energy conversion. In its first five years, the IMI-NFG has built a global reputation for teaching, research and outreach. The institute maintains ties with scientists and engineers in 32 countries and provides support for U.S. university students to travel to overseas schools as well as for foreign scientists to conduct glass research in the U.S. Many IMI-NFG investigations, including one into gold-ruby glass and another into the use of biocompatible glass to repair or replace damaged teeth and bones, enlist researchers from several continents.
The IMI-NFG maintains research programs in a range of topics and is especially active in biomedical glasses, glass strength and low-melting glass. The institute has recently expanded its efforts to overcome one of the main shortfalls of glass—its brittleness and lack of strength—and thereby improve its usefulness.
In the past five years, the IMI-NFG has sponsored more than 80 research exchanges, including 20 overseas visits by U.S. researchers. It has awarded 43 international conference travel grants to U.S. students, and it has arranged for 46 students to take part in REU (research experience for undergraduates) programs. Six of these were international.
All in all, says Jain, more than 450 people from six continents have partipicated in IMI-NFG activities.
In 2007, the IMI-NFG teamed with five other U.S. universities to offer a semester -long web-based course titled "Characterization and Structure of Glass." Twenty-eight students from seven schools enrolled in this novel application of multi-institution team teaching (MITT), and 30 more audited it. Another MITT course was taught from Clemson University and a new course on relaxation in glass will be offered next spring. All classes have been filmed and the videos posted to the IMI-NFG’s online Global Glass Library, which now contains more than 200 video lectures accessible via the Internet.
In January 2008, the IMI-NFG sponsored a Winter School in Japan. Fifteen students from U.S. universities spent two weeks in Kyoto attending lectures and field trips with their Japanese peers. The IMI-NFG has organized a second all-expenses-paid Winter School, titled "International Symposium on Functional Glasses," to be held January 4-15, 2010, at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China.
In the fall of 2008, Jain and Pantano co-taught a short course on glass to 15 students at Tuskegee University, a historically black school in Alabama that has now joined IMI-NFG as a partner school. The institute has also formed a collaboration with Arizona State University, which is funding an inner-city program for students. And it conducts hands-on demonstrations and other educational programs at the Da Vinci Science Center, a local science museum.
The IMI-NFG is guided by an industry board of advisers that includes representatives from the world’s six largest glass companies—Corning and PPG Industries Inc. (U.S.), Schott (Germany), Saint Gobain (France), and Asahi Glass and Nippon Glass (Japan)—as well as the Glass Manufacturing Industry Council (GMIC).
An international board of advisers contains members from Brazil, China, Egypt, France, India, Japan, Portugal and the United Kingdom. A U.S. board of advisers includes representatives of eight U.S. universities in addition to Lehigh, Penn State and Tuskegee.
The IMI-NFG’s outreach programs and the scientific exchanges, says Jain, are aimed in part at boosting the number of people choosing to pursue careers in science and engineering, especially glass science and technology. In the last few decades, he says, glass research has become "fragmented" as industrial labs have shut down and funding has shifted to nanotechnology and bioscience. As a result, no single school can boast a strong roster of glass experts or a a wide array of courses in glass science.
"Our web-based courses represent an effort to overcome the fragmentation of glass education," says Jain, who has studied glass for more than a quarter-century while collaborating with peers in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. "Fifty to 60 students typically enroll in these courses. Our goal is to globalize the idea so that students around the world can enroll."