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Glass at a Glance: Moving into High Gear

April 1, 2006
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When an industry starts working together, there's no end to what it can accomplish. The sky's the limit as the U.S. glass industry pursues a number of strategic objectives - from improved glass strength to better energy efficiency and reduced melting costs.

When an industry starts working together, there's no end to what it can accomplish, and the sky's the limit as the U.S. glass industry pursues a number of strategic objectives.

Glass Strength

The project with the greatest potential for positive impact on the industry as a whole is the "strength of glass" initiative. A three-step plan is under way to unravel the secret(s) that will lead to glass enjoying a tensile strength substantially closer to its theoretical limits. Based on the strength of its chemical bonds, glass should have a tensile strength somewhere in the 1 to 2 million psi range. In practical application, though, it ranges from 7000 to 50,000 psi.

What could glass be called upon to do if its strength could be increased by as little as 50 times? That's the starting point the Glass Manufacturing Industry Council (GMIC) established in 2005 with a university contest to predict what new products, applications and markets would be possible if we could make this increase. We received 20 submissions and awarded prizes to the top eight judged proposals.

This contest was held primarily in the U.S. and with minimal promotion. In June 2006, we will announce a second round that will be promoted globally through universities all over the world and coordinated through national glass associations under the offices of our partners, the International Commission on Glass and the NSF-International Materials Institute. The outcome of this contest, which will end in June 2007, will be used as the basis for developing funding and support for a major technology challenge. The "X Prize in Glass" will award a $10 million prize to the individual or group able to demonstrate a minimum of a 50 times increase in strength in three glass sectors.

Improving Energy Efficiency

Cost-shared research carried out in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is leading to the introduction of new melting and conditioning technologies that will substantially reduce energy consumption in the glass-making process. The submerged combustion melter technology, in its third year of development, is projected to reduce energy requirements for glass melting by 30%. Additionally, the front-end oxy firing project has demonstrated a 61% reduction in net energy consumption (gas consumption net of the electricity cost to generate the oxygen).

Another example is a plasma melting system that has successfully and economically melted glasses that have historically been difficult to melt, providing a viable approach for producing limited quantities of high-value glasses in specific applications.

Reducing Melting Costs

The increasing costs of natural gas are hitting glass hard. Some companies have closed, others are moving offshore and many have cut back their operations. Yet the U.S. is sitting on a huge inventory of coal, estimated to represent 150 years of demand if it could be safely and efficiently used. New clean-coal gasification technologies promise to provide a "syngas" that could be used in glass melting furnaces and in many other industries, replacing natural gas and reducing price pressures. Projected prices of $4 to $4.50 per million BTUs can be compared to the $8 to $14 many companies are currently paying for natural gas.

Today, coal gasification is used almost exclusively for electricity generation and chemical feedstock production. The GMIC is working with the DOE and the National Energy Technology Laboratory, as well as other industries, to move this technology forward and provide scaled-down gasification plants for economical use in glass and other industries.

Expanding the Effort

From its start in 1998, the GMIC has been steadily increasing its membership among glass companies and suppliers. In 2005, the members voted to broaden the categories of eligible members to increase the range of industry input. New member categories have been created for universities, small suppliers, consultants, individuals and research institutes. The wider our membership base, the more effective we can be in identifying and implementing improvements for our industry.

The glass industry is not alone in facing its challenges. In 2000, the GMIC invited other major industries working with the DOE to come together to explore ideas to jointly improve our individual and collective situations. The Alliance for Materials Manufacturing Excellence (AMMEX) was created through this collaboration. AMMEX works with several national, state and industry groups to seek additional avenues for collaboration in improving the viability of all of our industries.

The GMIC and its members continue to initiate strategic programs to move the U.S. glass industry in a positive direction. In future issues, we will provide updates and additional details on these and other activities intended to continue the growth and importance of this nation's first industry-the glass industry! For additional details, visit www.gmic.org.

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