August 2, 2011 | 2
When you think of chemistry, no doubt images of scientists in white lab coats swirling beakers and test tubes come to mind. Ever wonder where those beakers and test tubes originated? If your answer is a big science catalog like Fisher Scientific or Chemglass or the like, you’re probably right… some percentage of the time. The rest of the time chemists, and increasingly scientists in other disciplines like physics, engineering, geology etc. employ the skills of scientific glass blowers to make custom designed glassware to fit any specifications they can dream up.
Scientific glass blowers?! How retro does that sound?! My grandfather was a chemist and professor at Wesleyan University and I recall him saying that he learned to work glass so he could manipulate his own equipment. Evidently, back then it was common for there to be large glass shops associated with major chemistry departments. Not only were they employed to provide basic glassware for experiments, but they were constantly called on to repair equipment as well. According to Michael Souza, Princeton University’s resident scientific glass blower, the first supercomputer, ENIAC, was inoperable 50% of the time because each day several of its 17,000+ vacuum tubes would fail. This type of daily load kept glass shops buzzing so chemistry grad students were wise to learn glassblowing to manage their own needs. Hence my grandfather’s glassblowing skill.
Since that time, glass shops have shrunk considerably as chemists’ needs have changed and technology pushes much of the old equipment into obsolescence. But a quick scan of some of the top schools’ chemistry departments reveals that scientific glass blowers are alive and well. The fact is, mass production works for many items in a chem lab, but for cutting edge experiments, you need cutting edge equipment. Scientific glass blowers continue to provide experimental chemists with the expertise and skill to create just about anything from glass.
Furthermore, a select few have learned to work with notoriously finicky varieties of glass. Princeton’s Souza has made a name for himself in being one of the few glassblowers capable of manipulating the notoriously finicky aluminosilicate glass. This is the only type of glass that can withstand helium permeation and hot alkali vapors such as cesium, potassium, and rubidium. (It’s also evidently the glass used on your iPhone4 screen if the Internets are telling me the truth.) In one collaboration Souza describes, he must blow a ¾” area of aluminosilicate glass to a thickness of less than 120 microns with an error of no more than 10 microns in either direction (for reference, a human hair is between 90 and 150 microns). The cells must withstand 300 psi for 30 minutes, and close to half of the cells fail under the pressure. As many as 30 cells are needed to perform one experiment. I don’t know about you, but I cry, “Mercy!”
Science is by nature collaborative, but it’s not only a collaboration between scientists, as you might think. Scientific illustrators, fossil preparators, laboratory technicians and scientific glass blowers work very closely with scientists behind the scenes to push the boundaries of technology and make research run smoothly. They bring manual dexterity, intricate knowledge of methods and materials, ingenuity and artistry to the table. Without this additional type of collaboration, research would grind to a halt.