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The golden death mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun is one of the most famous historical artefacts in the world. The shining visage of the young king dates back to around 1325 BCE and features blue strips that are sometimes described as lapis lazuli. Yet rather than being the semi-precious stone favoured in ancient Egypt, the striking decoration is in fact coloured glass.

A coveted and highly prized material deemed worthy of royalty, glass was once viewed on a par with gemstones, with examples of ancient glass going back even further than Tutankhamun. Indeed, samples excavated and analysed by archaeologists and scientists have enabled a better understanding of how and where glass production began. But surprisingly, ancient glass is also being studied by another group of scientists – those who are finding safe ways to store nuclear waste.

Next year the US will start to vitrify parts of its legacy nuclear waste currently housed in 177 underground storage tanks at the Hanford Site, a decommissioned facility in Washington state that produced plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Second World War and Cold War. But the idea to transform nuclear waste into glass, or vitrify it, was developed as far back as the 1970s, as a way to keep the radioactive elements locked away and prevent them from leaking out.

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