Monday, September 26, 2016

Is there demand for scientific glassblowers?

Some cutting-edging science today relies on the centuries-old art of glassblowing. When researchers in chemistry, physics and medicine need special glass tools for complex experiments, they sometimes sit down with a glassblower to sketch out designs for customized beakers, flasks and condenser coils. 
New Jersey's Salem Community College is trying to keep that tradition going with the country's only degree program in scientific glassblowing. Housed among corn and soybean fields about an hour south of Philadelphia, the school's Glass Education Center in Alloway, N.J., specializes in one of the most popular materials in a research lab. 
"It's clear. You can see what the experiments are doing. It holds no chemical history. And it can be shaped into any form you like," explains Dennis Briening, the instructional chair of the college's two-year scientific glass technology program. "Whatever your imagination is, it can be made." 
His students learn how to make tools for research universities and glass manufacturers at workbenches across a row of glowing furnaces....
So, here's my question: is there demand for scientific glassblowers? Would you recommend someone become a scientific glassblower as a career? How many openings are there a year for scientific glassblowers? My thoughts:
  • This seems to me a field with a very limited number of standard, benefits-providing full-time positions. You probably have to be a decently large Ph.D.-granting institution to employ one glassblower with their shop. I estimate that there are less than 400 full-time scientific glassblowers in this country.
  • There's not a lot of evidence, one way or another, as to what job growth might be. The Occupational Outlook Handbook is pretty silent, classifying glass workers under "artists". (I could believe there are plenty of amateur glassblowers who are good at making various smoking implements; I don't think they're qualified for scientific glassblowing, but maybe I'm wrong.) 
  • It seems to me that the real requirement for bespoke laboratory glassware is something that the folks at ChemGlass or Ace could easily handle.
That said, some opinion on Twitter and Reddit is suggesting there's a little demand. So, readers, what do you think? I'm probably wrong, but I don't think so. 


  1. No chemical history? Nottttt always, says this chemist who's worked with silanols as reagents...

    1. Nottttt always also says the organometallic chemist who, during his mechanistic studies, determined that all of the deuterium that was supposed to end up at a specific position in the molecule ended up being replaced by protons from the glassware in the proto-demetallation step.

  2. "It seems to me that the real requirement for bespoke laboratory glassware is something that the folks at ChemGlass or Ace could easily handle"

    i would tend to agree with that statement, although it definitely seems like an awesome niche occupation.

  3. When you are an inorganic chemist working with very air sensitive reagents, and there is a good glassblower on staff, life is much easier.

  4. "It seems to me that the real requirement for bespoke laboratory glassware is something that the folks at ChemGlass or Ace could easily handle"

    Respectfully disagree. The org-syn folks might be able to get by without artisan distillation heads, but the physical side often requires specialty items. We're talking ultrathin quartz windows, specific thermal expansion, welded IR or UV transparent glass, glass-metal seals, integrated optical components etc. Chemglass just doesn't have the time and skill for these one-offs, and when they do, the quotes are simply beyond academic reach. When we've ordered from them in the past, extremely delicate parts simply cannot survive shipping.

  5. I looked into it quite a bit 7-8 yrs ago when I was looking for ways to move out of the lab.

    There's def a niche for master glassblowers, but the apprenticeship process is very arduous and most people simply don't have the innate 'hands' to become a master, so you're at the Ace-glass-making-rbs-level.

    So huge investment for tiny chance of being 'great.'

  6. Having tried to use one of the major glass suppliers for custom work, I can say that the loss of one's in-house glassblower is a substantial one. My only experience with a very simple custom piece was terrible. I don't want to call them out specifically because it may have been a fluke, but it certainly convinced me to seek out an external academic glass blower for all future custom work.

  7. This might be an easier path to "entrepreneurship" than a bespoke synthesis org--if they're a small demand nationwide (order online) but not enough for the major companies to fulfill it (niche) and no chemical disposal/waste EHS problems, maybe an opportunity for independents?

  8. Just to throw my 2-cents... there are still some academic labs that this is a required skill, but they are few and far between. When starting to learn anionic polymerization, I spent 1 week at the University of Tennessee in Jimmy Mays lab. Everyone in the lab spent most of their time making their own glass reaction vessels for 1 experiment. From my understanding, your first year in the lab you would learn to blow glass. When you became a expert , you would spend about a week blowing glass for 1 experiment. But this looked particularly frustrating when people would spend a week putting a elaborate setup together, only to realize that their was a pinhole somewhere and had to start over.
    Overall it seemed pretty cool, but very niche.

  9. Probably not a coincidence that this program is about half an hour away from the Vineland NJ chemical glass industry, where Ace, Chemglass, Quark etc all located. Good idea to develop local skills/talent.

    My glassblowers once told me there is an awesome program in Hungary, world-leader, but don't remember where more specifically.