Corning's E. Asia CTO talks about what's next after Gorilla Glass

In 30 years at Corning, Dr. Peter Bocko has worked on glass projects that range from fiber optics to cosmic ray detection. LCD glass--which in one year would create a highway of glass from Seattle to Boston--is just the beginning.

I thought I knew something about glass when I got on the phone with Dr. Peter Bocko recently. It was 5 a.m. at Corning’s Tokyo headquarters, and Bocko, the company’s Chief Technology Officer, East Asia (who holds nine U.S. patents), proceeded to astonish me with every new glass project he described—and Gorilla Glass was just the beginning. Excerpts from our conversation are below.

In your years at Corning, what are the various ways that you’ve worked with glass?

For TV--both LCD [liquid crystal display] and cathode ray tube; to store and retrieve digital information, like a memory stick; as a protective cover on phones and notebook computers; in high-technology lighting; as packaging material; as a substrate for drug discovery; for carrying data; in a laser project; and in a NASA project.

Glass in space?

We worked with a guy who worked for NASA who wanted to shoot some of our glass into space to detect cosmic rays. One of our glasses has this extraordinary flatness. When you’re working with cosmic rays, if there’s any imperfections on the surface of the glass, you’ll scatter them. So he was looking for something with an extremely smooth surface.

Describe the Corning research lab.

In 1908 we formalized our R&D facility. It’s on a beautiful rural hill overlooking Corning, New York. We have 1,200 to 1,500 people, about half with advanced degrees. There’s probably not enough glass science PhDs in the world, so we have to train them.

Where is the glass made?

It happens all over the world. In the LCD business, you have to have it close to customers. The glass we’re selling is three meters square and less than a millimeter thick. It’s so large you can’t even ship it because you can’t get it under a bridge or tunnel in Japan. So certain products have to be manufactured in the markets where the glass is used.

What makes Gorilla Glass so strong?

We make the glass into a sheet and then create a strengthened layer on the surface that makes it really tough. The original application for this was cell phones because they take a lot of abuse. But now, we’re using it for larger displays. I’ve got a video we show perspective customers. Some poor guy is bowling on his Wii and he launches his controller into his LCD screen and breaks the screen. It’s really sad. But some customers are worried about this.

How much of the LCD market is Corning’s?

We’re the leading glass supplier for LCD screens, supplying about half the total glass in the market for cell phones, notebook computers, computer monitors and TVs. Add up all that glass for LCD screens in 2010, and you can create a four-line highway of glass, built to DOT specs, including shoulders and the median, along I-90 from Seattle to Boston. That’s over 3,000 miles of glass. So the glass that Corning sells is equivalent to [more than] a two-lane highway. It’s staggering, thinking about a ribbon of glass stretching across the country, all from computers and cell phones.

I understand there are some applications where glass is rolled like paper?

Human hair is about 100 microns--a typical thickness we’ve demonstrated the capability to draw this glass into. It comes from molten straight into a vigorous stretching process and can be rolled up on a reel and deployed and stretched. The problem has been that up until now our customers haven’t yet had a machine technology that can benefit from having glass being rolled up.

How would it be used?

As a cover glass for solar cells, or for the next generation of e-books. Thin rolled glass would be the substrate that a display manufacturer could use to make a type of display that the industry calls e-paper. E-paper will be used in a variety of emerging and future applications such as e-readers, electronic text books, also point-of-purchase marketing messages.

Unlike ordinary LCD and plasma displays, e-paper works by reflection and is extremely energy efficient. We think the use of flexible glass will enable vivid color in a flexible (maybe even rollable) display. In order to make these displays as cheaply as possible--so we can "wallpaper" our environment with changeable and compelling images--a glass substrate that is delivered to a display manufacturer as a reel of glass could allow the electronics to be printed in processes analogous to printing photos and books, rather than the more expensive photolithography process used in semiconductors and LCDs. It’s not sci-fi—in the next few years, you’ll see some of these products coming out.

You’ve been at Corning for 30 years. Could you ever have imagined all the things glass could do?

I was trained in fundamental physical chemistry. Corning takes brains of mush like I had coming out of grad school and gives them the opportunity to learn about glass. I remember looking at the Periodic Table of Elements and someone telling me, “You can use almost this entire thing to make glass.” I knew glass had unbelievable potential, but I didn’t realize how the glass markets would change.

We tend to think of glass as fragile, but it’s being used as a strong protective layer. How strong is it?

It’s one of the strongest materials in its pristine state—with no scratches or chips. Our chairman has this magic show with our customers and shows them—through hands-on demos and videos--amazing things you can do with glass in the high-strength regime. They think of glass as weak, but when properly held it can be extraordinarily strong.

One of the strongest materials known to man is glass drawn into a fiber. Recently Corning introduced ClearCurve, an optical fiber we’ve engineered that’s so strong you can staple it to a joist in a house and the light will go unimpeded. In an older house where there are cramped curves, an ordinary optical fiber will lose its light when there’s a sharp bend; this allows them to put optical fiber in their home networks.

Other than the strength, what are other misconceptions about glass?

People think glass is a super-cooled liquid and it’s unstable. People have looked at stained glass windows in medieval churches and said the glass is thicker at bottom, so they think it flows. But it doesn’t. Glass is extremely stable. Some of the oldest objects in the universe are glass. The Apollo astronauts brought back glass particles from the lunar surface. A glass object will last until the sun blows up.

Still doubting the strength of glass? The video below shows a Wii controller being thrown at 65 mph against a sheet of Corning’s Gorilla Glass.

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