The fragile state of scientific glassblowing


Imperial College London/Dave Guttridge, The Photographic Unit By Joshua Howgego The spaghetti junction of glass tubing bubbling with noxious liquids and gases would look perfectly at home in Frankenstein’s laboratory. But I am standing in the chemistry labs at Imperial College London, and my companion is no mad scientist. He’s not even that into chemistry – his heart is in the glass. Stephen Ramsey is a lab technician, but of a special kind. When a chemist needs a novel reactor vessel for an experiment, Ramsey heads to his workshop and fires up his precision flamethrower. Starting with a metre-long cylinder of glass, he heats it until it begins to soften. Twirling it quickly and deftly, he blows into it, forming it. What emerges can be anything from a delicate vial to the thin, snaking tubes of specialised vacuum pumps. Atop a cabinet in Ramsey’s office is a galloping horse he once blew out of glass. But with lab budgets under pressure worldwide, there are few scientific glassblowers like him left. Can chemistry cope without them? Glass is the reactor material par excellence. The borosilicate glass that forms most chemical vessels is inert and hugely durable, so you can heat, cool and react the brews within knowing the glass won’t explode, deform or interfere with the reaction. And you can see what the chemicals are up to,
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