Glass-blowing chemists create necessary wares, popular class

By Laura Ingalls

Arizona Daily Wildcat

It's delicate work that keeps UA's glassblowers busy in the bowels of the Old Chemistry building.

Charlie Amling and Steve Moder use their glassblowing talents to delight students and save researchers thousands of dollars in custom glassware. With 45 years of experience between them, the two have carved out a niche in the university and national custom glass markets. As two of only 1,000 glassblowers in the country, they provide glassware for about 40 University of Arizona departments and do additional work for national companies, ranging from pharmaceutical firms to Motorola.

"It's kind of like working with toffee," said Amling, shaping the clear, melted strands of glass.

The two teach a scientific glassblowing class, molding students of science and art into glassblowing fans.

"It's got to be the best upper division chemistry class in the world. Plus, the teachers are gems," said Brenda Smith, a chemistry senior. She was painting a pair of chile pepper earrings on one of the fun days of class, when they get a break from fashioning chemistry equipment.

"They're patient and supportive to the point of lying to you about how good your stuff is," she said.

Yesterday the class was working on ornamental glass projects for Halloween like glass spiders and pumpkin earrings. However, Moder said the class emphasizes scientific applications, although the ornamental glasswork helps students hone their skills.

Moder, who has a degree in chemistry, learned glassblowing from Amling 15 years ago at the University of Wisconsin where he was a laboratory technician.

Amling moved to UA 10 years ago and restarted the class, which had been canceled prior to his arrival. He and Moder were reunited in 1989 when another glassblower retired.

The pair design their works from crude drawings provided by researchers asking for everything from mosquito feeders to patches for mirror lab lenses.

Amling recently saved an adjunct professor about $8,000 by making a glass laser.

He also worked on two apparatuses in the geosciences department which separate carbon dioxide from ancient Arctic ice cores to study global warming. The mammoth apparatuses required months of designing and creating the glassware on site, Amling said.

The glassblowing process normally starts with borosilicate glass which is heated over a natural gas flame, reaching temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celcius. Quartz glass, a purer form containing 99 percent silica or sand, is used for projects that require more resilient glassware, Amling said.

After shaping the tubes or rods into the desired shapes, the glass is cooled slowly to prevent breaking. Then it goes into an annealing oven for one last baking at a scorching 600 degrees.

Bending a dolphin figurine, Kean Bauman, a political science and photography junior, said his glassblowing class is anything but a dull lecture series.

"You're working with materials everday. It's not a textbook class," he said. Amling and Moder don't exactly fit the typical professor mold, Bauman said.

"I don't know if you'd call them professors; they're laid back . helpful," he said.

Putting the final touches on her earrings, Smith said the class is a relaxing break from her usual schedule.

"It's my favorite class. It makes everything else I'm doing this semester worth it," she said.

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