Corning Glass Research Summit nucleates game plan for glass science research

Published on June 20th, 2014 | By: Eileen De Guire

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The best defense is a good offense, “they” say. Corning Incorporated played great offense last week at an invitation-only Glass Research Summit designed to address two trends that are driving a growing gap and sounding an alarm in Corning’s C-suite offices.

The gap Corning sees is unprecedented growth for commercial applications of technical glass, while the university Ph.D. pipeline produces only a trickle of qualified new glass scientists.

According to David Morse, chief technology officer, the global market for technical glass is more than $30 billion and expected to grow. Every cell phone, for example, contains three or four pieces of glass—each engineered to meet a specific technical requirement. As the wireless device segment grows, so will the glass market. “Fifty billion wireless things are still solid things,” Morse says.

Other areas of growth for glass include optical fiber, which is driven by the explosion in data centers, very thin and flexible glass for displays, and strong glass—for just about everything.

Corning has been watching the emerging gap for some time. Their first indicator was difficulty finding qualified glass scientists to hire. Last fall John Mauro, ­­­­­research manager of glass research, and several colleagues went looking for data underlying causes for the talent dearth and found a steady decline in the number of scientific papers published on industrially important glass systems (i.e., silicates), which correlates to a drop in silicate glass research at universities. They published their study recently in anopen access article in the International Journal of Applied Glass Science (read CTT summary here), and another paper will be in the September IJAGS on a related topic, “Two centuries of glass research: Historical trends, current status, and grand challenges for the future.”

Plus, the glass world is not so large, and a quick head count shows a lot of silver-topped kopfs with at least one eye on retirement in academia, as well as at Corning’s Sullivan Park.

So, to defend its position as a leader in innovative glass technology, Corning took the offense, so to speak, and organized a two-day Glass Research Summit that took place June 12–13 at company headquarters. The Summit had two goals—to revitalize interest in glass research in academia and to find collaborators. Mauro says in an email, “Our hope was that the Summit would stimulate discussion within the glass research community and open the possibility of developing new collaborations with university research partners to increase emphasis on glass research in the United States.”

Besides building up a pool of candidates, Corning wants to set the stage for collaborations with academia. “We can’t hire all the smart people,” says Daniel Vaughn, manager of external collaborations and intellectual assets. “We need a strong community of collaborators and a healthy pipeline.”

About 45 participants from outside Corning attended, and about 100 Corning scientists attended over the two days. Most of the invited attendees were academics, with a few from national labs and Lynnette Madsen, ceramics program director from the National Science Foundation. Corning wisely sent a wide spectrum of employees from summer interns to new hires, midcareer and seasoned scientists, and a few emeriti, as well as representatives from the business side.

The Summit was organized in a workshop format, with presentations on fundamental science issues followed by discussion with the audience. Corning prides itself on tackling big challenges, and the presentations from their side bore witness with talks on topics like structural relaxation, mechanical properties, chemical durability, melting, and modeling. Interestingly, speakers tied the relevance of their science to the business of glass in some way—the cost of processing, durability of products, applicability to new products, etc. For example, relaxation affects how Corning’s customers handle glass while assembling their products; sharp contact strength is a euphemism for impacts we suffer onto our cell phones; chemical durability prevents glass from flaking into pharmaceuticals; and so on.

Corporate talks alternated with talks from academics like Liping Huang of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, rising star Mathieu Bauchy (who will join the UCLA faculty this fall), leading glass science researcher Edgar Zanotto from Universidade Federal de São Carlos in Brazil, and Stanford’s geosciences crossover, Jonathan Stebbins.

Identifying the technical “grand challenges” is one thing. Funding academic research is quite another, but just as important to the industrial sector as to the academic sector. Michael Pambianchi, research director of glass research and summit emcee, says in an email, “Industrial companies like Corning need a pipeline of students prepared in the field of glass science, so we need to make sure there is a robust academic community to support them.”

A panel discussion gave attendees the opportunity to start addressing some of the financial support issues.

In her presentation, Madsen shared information on NSF funding trends for glass and glass-ceramic research. The good news—funding rates for the ceramics program are holding steady at 20–25 percent, despite an overall downward trend for materials research at the NSF. The bad news—very few are awarded for glass science.

Madsen says the NSF looks for “exciting revolutionary ideas” to fund and will pass on proposals that are “incremental” or “not gutsy enough.” Most academics have had the experience of having a gutsy proposal shot down during the peer review process for being too risky or unproven. Something for the audience to ponder, considering that most of them serve as peer reviewers for each other’s proposals.

Did the Summit meet its goals? Time will tell, but interest in the topics was high as evidenced by overtime Q&A sessions, lively discussions, and business-card swapping during the breaks. Technical challenges and practical (i.e., funding) frustrations were discussed frankly. Corning hosts were open, engaging, and gracious. The message was clear—the company wants to be a proactive partner with academia, for its own good and the good of glass science.

Mauro sums up in an email, “Corning can only do so much with its resources and priorities. The broader academic community offers the potential of wider collaborations, attracting more funding, etc. Corning is serving as a crystallizing organization to stimulate the glass science ecosystem.”

So says the glass man!


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