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At ASU, Third-Generation Scientific Glassblower Blends Art And Science

Go to any major research university, and you'll find the most advanced science relies on an art older than alchemy.

"Most universities that have a pretty good-sized chemistry graduate program have a scientific glassblower on hand," said Christine Roeger of Arizona State University's glass shop.

The shop is part of the Instrument Design and Fabrication Core, a group of shared resources that support ASU research by providing fabrication, electronics and machining services.

Roeger is a third-generation scientific glassblower.

A solo act, her main work companions are a collection of graphite glass-working gear, lathes, saws and racks of glass tubes. Every night, a 7-foot annealing oven brings the day's work up to a constant temperature of 1,040 F, then cools it slowly to remove stresses in the glass.

Roeger took over the shop 12 years ago from her dad, Mike Wheeler, who taught her the trade.

"Between classes, I'd come in here and visit my dad, and hang out in a nice cool spot. And I kind of just started working with him a little bit."

Today, she serves four campuses of research faculty and graduate students.

"Sometimes they come in not knowing what they need; sometimes they come in knowing exactly what they need, and I can help guide them," she said.

Roeger also teaches grad students the basics of her craft, such as simple repairs and flame seals. As ASU materials scientist David Wright recalled, they often learn the most valuable lesson — that hot glass looks exactly like cold glass — on their own.

"The name that they give that class is Burn and Bleed 101," said Wright.

Because Wright's work involves extremes of temperature, pressure and reactivity, he relies heavily on quartz glass.

"Quartz glass" is bit of a misnomer. Quartz, by definition, is crystalline silica; it's orderly. Glasses are the opposite of orderly — they're more like frozen chaos.

David Wright, a materials scientist at Arizona State University, demonstrates a custom container made by Christine Roeger in the ASU glass shop.
(Video by Jackie Hai - KJZZ)

ASU chemist Jeff Yarger said that just about any liquid can become a glass if you cool it fast enough.

"It will be a frozen liquid; it will have complete disorder, like liquids do, but the motion will be frozen out of it, so it will be a solid, that is the structure, or have the disorder, of a liquid. That's a glass."

Both Wright and Yarger took Mike Wheeler's glassblowing class.

"I got dangerous enough that at least I could jerry-rig a few things," said Yarger.

Yarger, like most chemists, works mainly with borosilicate glass. This mix of silica and boron oxide is malleable at lower temperatures. While quartz requires a hydrogen torch and a working temperature of about 3,500 F, the glass can be worked using a 2,000 F natural gas and oxygen flame.

Both glasses are known for their ability to play host to chemical reactions without taking part in them.

SiO2's non-reactivity derives from its thermodynamic stability. In short, silicon and oxygen really, really like being bonded to each other; their heads are not easily turned by any passing radical.

But quartz and borosilicate glasses also famously share another useful quality: their ability the stand up to thermal shock.

"You can pull it off the flame, and put it into liquid nitrogen, and it can handle these huge temperature fluctuations," said Yarger.

While some metals share this property too, they tend to be more chemically reactive than silica glasses. That fact, and a useful transparency, explain why glass has been a part of science since the post-Renaissance flowering of medicine, astronomy physics and chemistry.

Today, widespread research has spawned an industry to supply it, and that goes for lab glass as well; for standard work, chemists and engineers can order standard parts. But out-of-the-box thinking can't rely on off-the-shelf glass.

"Even when you buy something from one of the glass companies, and it's a prefabricated apparatus, you almost always want it to be modified to do what you're going to do with it," said Wright.

Yarger agreed.

"Oftentimes, what makes the ability to do new things is also the apparatus, not just the chemicals," said Yarger.

Take Thomas Dempster, lab manager of ASU's Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. To cultivate his research subjects, he needed something quite basic, but surprisingly elusive.

Thomas Dempster of ASU’s Center for Algae Technology and Innovation describes the 800 milliliter cultivation vessels made by Christine Roeger in the ASU glass shop.
(Video courtesy of Thomas Dempster)

"We needed intermediate sizes of cultivation vessels – large glass culture tubes – that just weren't available on the market anywhere. And, to the best of my knowledge, they're still not available."

Roeger's work takes her into a variety of fields. She's produced sponge-distillers for cancer researchers, multi-branching Schlenk lines for chemists and even cricket houses.

Beyond customization and innovation, in-house glassblowers save their schools time and money.

"Laboratory glassware is extremely expensive – and we drop stuff from time to time," said Dempster.

Dempster estimated the glass shop charges 1/10 to 1/20 of what companies would, with a much faster turnaround.

Nevertheless, scientific glassblowing is a dying art.

"It's slowly been dwindling. Like, lately, if people retire, they kind of shut down the shop and start outsourcing. But us glassblowers are trying to change that," said Roeger.

Roeger is working to reestablish the apprenticeship program in which she learned her skills."The apprenticeship program is a four-year, full-time, hands-on training with a master glassblower, and it really does take that much to be able to produce glassware that customers can use."For now, she's glad to see more women entering a historically male-dominated field.

"I remember going to my first meeting as the glassblower, and everybody was kind of like, 'Well, where does your husband work?'" she said.

As for whether there'll be a fourth generation, Roeger said she'd love it if one of her two sons would like to take up the torch.

"I'm not sure there are any fourth-generation scientific glassblowers around. That'd be pretty cool!" said Roeger.

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.