Fifty years of glass-blowing at Memorial University
From across the work bench, Brian Power and Sabrina Bélanger face each other, torches in hand, blowing air into rubber hoses.
The result? Glass pieces that are both works of art and functional pieces of scientific equipment.
For 50 years glass masterpieces have been fabricated in this unassuming lab on the first floor of the Chemistry-Physics building.
Falling under the umbrella of the Department of Technical Services, the Scientific Glassblowing Shop is one of only two in Atlantic Canada. Technical Services is a unit within the Office of Vice-President (Research). It is a place where Mr. Power has been working for 26 years.
Preserving the craft
Mr. Power was mentored by Tom Perks, who retired from Memorial in 2003.
In turn, Mr. Power has been passing on his knowledge and skills to Sabrina Bélanger.
Ms. Bélanger joined the glass-blowing shop three years ago.
She will be the sole scientific glass-blower in the province using the same tools, torches and Heathway lathe from England that has been used to turn larger pieces in Memorial’s shop since 1967.
“Working in a university setting, you get to be part of research that you wouldn’t experience in private industry doing production runs and you are continuously challenged,” said Ms. Bélanger, blowing air into the rubber tube and aiming the blue flame at the glass.
“Researchers can also make prototypes and modifications to existing designs to better serve their needs,” added Ms. Belanger, who is the director of the Canadian section of the American Scientific Glassblowing Society, which focuses on furthering the education and knowledge of scientific glass-blowing through hands-on seminars, technical presentations, and an annual symposium.
“It’s a lot faster than ordering from an outside company,” said Anke Krutof, a PhD candidate supervised by Dr. Kelly Hawboldt, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. “You can get things repaired quickly and the turnaround time is fast, saving downtime in the lab.”
An example of a specialized piece of equipment recently made in the shop is a distillation system for complex fluids used by Ms. Krutof for the distillation of bio-based and petroleum oils to separate compounds.
She says the glass-blowing shop produces the pyrolysis lab-scale glass sample boats and condensing systems they require for their research and for making holders for the team’s surface area analyzer.
Dr. Hawboldt says that recently, Mr. Power took a piece of existing glassware and improved things like tube connections and access to different points to fit into her her existing infrastructure.
“With his expertise, we save money because we don’t have to send it away every time we break a part, which is common with glass vessels,” she said.
“Finally, if we want to tweak design, like for this piece, Brian is able to do it, and he’s always interested in this sort of thing, optimizing the system. Without his pieces, some experiments would be impossible.”
“We always ask researchers: ‘What are you using it for?’ If the researcher wants the glass for a certain thing, we can make design suggestions to improve its function,” said Mr. Power, who for that particular piece of work, added glass studs for mounting two joined tubes to a large column and seal one side with no air access from the usual end.
Most scientific glass work pieces are made by heating and sculpting the glass with hand-held torches and tools. The pieces at Memorial are turned by hand, all while blowing air in through a blow hose.
“This piece was a new challenge, something I hadn’t seen before in my 26-plus years on the job,” he added. “We had to come up with a new method of construction. We enjoy figuring out how to make something new.”
Contributions to community
“Scientific glass-blowing is a unique and essential service offered by our department,” said Rick Meaney, director, Technical Services. “Much laboratory work requires a variety of glass vessels and our ability to construct custom configurations or repair complex pieces creates a significant advantage for Memorial’s researchers.”
The colleagues’ other shared passion is artistic glass-blowing, which they apply to Memorial’s annual Alumni Tribute Awards and fundraisers organized by the university.
“In collaboration with other Technical Services’ shops, designing and building the awards allows us to use our artistic skills,” Mr. Power said, explaining they have had opportunities to express their creativity for visiting dignitaries.
For example, he made a glass-blown pitcher plant for Governor General David Johnston and also made an armillary sphere, similar to the one in the courtyard outside the Arts and Administration building.
“Generally the chemistry department is our biggest customer,” said Ms. Bélanger. “But we also do a lot of work for engineering and other Memorial departments and the local research industry. If you want to learn more about Memorial’s Scientific Glassblowing Shop and the services we offer, please come visit us.”