October 17, 2019
Purdue’s Scientific Glass Blowing Lab offers unique services
Room 427 in Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry has its torches, lathes, Bunsen burners and ovens. From the doorway, it appears to be the mix between an art studio and scientific lab. For Jordan Smith, Purdue’s scientific glassblower, it is both.
Smith works in the Scientific Glass Blowing Lab at Purdue and his jobs range from repairing glass to fabricating lab equipment to customizing gifts. The lab provides its services for the Purdue campus and region. Inquiries from external academic units, business and government also are welcomed. A photo gallery of work in the lab is available here.
Smith’s interest in glass began at age 15 when he met a glassblower through a mutual friend. Smith had an interest in design and fabrication engineering from his high school curriculum, but glass hadn’t previously crossed his mind.
After high school, Smith spent five years working as a glass craftsman and then decided to return to school for an associate degree in scientific glassblowing. He spent over 15 years working in scientific and artistic glassblowing before starting at Purdue for the fall 2018 semester.
“I fell in love with the challenge that comes with the fabrication of glass objects,” Smith says. "All materials pose their own challenges, but glassworking has many that are unique to the material. When you are blowing glass, you are trying to manipulate a viscous molten liquid manually without being able to touch the work piece. When making laboratory apparatus, this is double challenging because there are usually somewhat tight tolerances for many dimensions of the final product.”
His lab at Purdue sees many different activities throughout the week. Although Smith doesn’t have a typical day, one relatively constant process in the lab involves glass repair and glassblowing. Glass is preheated to a minimum of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (537 degrees Celsius). Oxygen and natural gas torches are used to manipulate the glass as desired. The glass is then cooled slowly with a Bunsen burner and placed in an oven to go through the annealing process, bringing all the glass to full thermal expansion to remove stresses and toughen it.
The material Smith uses in the lab is the borosilicate glass, or Pyrex. His work often involves constructing lab materials that must maintain a high heat in lab experiments, which the borosilicate glass is able to do.
During the semester, one of Smith’s roles includes teaching an introductory chemistry course on scientific glassblowing. He oversees 12 students each term in the 500-level, one-credit-hour class. Students are taught the basics of scientific glassblowing, including how attentive a glassblower must be. Students first watch Smith in a demonstration and then take turns with a partner manipulating glass with a small torch while the other individual helps coach and instruct. According to Smith, glass is all about muscle memory, but beginners must first develop it.
The glass lab has a broad history at Purdue. It was first opened in the 1950s by a chemistry graduate student. In 1959, the University hired its first full-time glassblower and began the introductory course. The lab was part time for several years but expanded its hours again last fall. With a full-time lab, Smith is looking to expand its services.
“We’re excited to expand the glass lab into custom fabrication projects,” Smith says. “We can do everything from consultation and design to manufacturing and installation. Reaching all edges of campus to help them with repairs, odd jobs, gifts and awards is a goal of ours. Come in and visit our lab anytime.”
The lab is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Clients are welcome to stop in to discuss the work needed during business hours.
Lab rates beginning at $40 an hour plus materials. All work requires an online request to be submitted.
“We do our best to design the labware apparatus around the experiment or lab, so the researchers don’t have to design their projects around an apparatus. Creative labware requests are encouraged,” Smith says.
The Scientific Glass Blowing Lab will be hosting an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. Oct. 22 in Wetherill, Room 427, for Purdue’s West Lafayette campus as well as private industry.
Smith also recently hosted the regional meeting of the American Scientific Glassblowing Society, in which he demonstrated precision resizing tubing on a glass object.
For more information on the glassblowing lab and the service it offers, visit the lab's website.