by Brandon Mercer

MONTREAL (CBS SF) — The dreaded cracked iPhone or Android screen could eventually be far less common thanks to research into a new way of manufacturing glass, applying lessons learned by studying clams and abalone.

Mollusks’ shells are mostly the same material as chalk, very brittle, but the inside is lined with mother-of-pearl — a flexible, resilient material prized for its luster and longevity.

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McGill University mechanical engineer Francois Barthelat said, “We have increased the toughness of glass using bio-inspired tricks, and this new approach could be used in many applications where impact-resistant glass is needed, including smartphone screens.”

His team found the inner lining of shells is made of microscopic tablets of “Lego” style building blocks, and they were able to recreate something in glass.

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Creating the actual structure of “nacre” or mother-of-pearl is not possible yet, but instead, his team engraved cracks into glass slides to create weak boundaries to mimic the Lego-tablet structure. It worked.

Glass rectangles became 200 times more resilient than without the engraving. Next, they filled the micro-cracks with polyurethane.

“What we know now is that we can toughen glass, or other materials, by using patterns of micro-cracks to guide larger cracks, and in the process absorb the energy from an impact,” says Barthelat.

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No word on interest from Apple, but the research shows promise, and could soon be applied to other brittle materials too.