SFU glassblower’s magic enhances student and research experiences

January 15, 2021
SFU glass blower Lucas Clarke creates some marvelous glass creations for SFU researchers and students. Photo courtesy: Instagram: @_lucas_clarke_

SFU glassblower Lucas Clarke’s scientific glass creations are orbiting Earth and sitting at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean.

Clarke made those glass tools while working at a private glassblowing company in Berkley, CA, but his work since joining SFU in 2018 is just as interesting.

When SFU scientists need specialized glass implements that can withstand extreme pressure or slice through individual cells, they visit Clarke’s Burnaby campus shop to make their request and explain their needs.

But his work isn’t always for scientists. Clarke says his most interesting SFU assignment so far was crafting glass ‘stones’ for an archaeology professor who wanted to give students hands-on experience in how ancient civilizations crafted their stone tools, known as lithics. They learned to craft arrowheads by knocking and chipping the glass stones.

“The project was out of the range of what I normally do,” says Clarke, who has continued to work in his shop, alone, throughout most of the pandemic.

“I had to ask the machine shop to make steel molds for the glass stones. Then I had to go to Terminal City Glass Co-op downtown to do the furnace work, dropping molten glass into the molds, adding colour to make the stones more exciting, and then annealing (cooling them slowly) to eliminate internal stresses in the glass so that the stones wouldn’t break when students were chipping away at them.”

Lucas Clarke details some of his incredible work on his Instagram feed: @_lucas_clarke_

For most of his projects, Clarke does glass lampworking at a lab bench. Instead of using a large furnace to heat the glass and blow it into shapes, he melts prefabricated glass rods over oxygen-enriched torches on the bench, then shapes and manipulates them to fashion his creations.

“You can inflate glass, constrict it, bend it or join it together,” explains Clarke. “Using those basic building blocks, you can come up with all sorts of shapes and designs. And because of glass’ stability, its resistance to heat, and its transparencies to a variety of light spectrums, it’s a useful tool for a wide variety of disciplines.

“It’s also immensely strong. Under compression it is six times stronger than steel. We can treat glass in ways that let bullets bounce off of it, or in ways that make it become floppy and flexible. We can pull it into a thin fibre and transmit data across the ocean. And the sharpest blades that man can create are made of glass, sharp enough to cut and slice individual cells.”

Clarke’s passion for his work can be seen in the unusual pieces he creates in his spare time. They often defy imagination, making us wonder how they are made. These pieces, he says, are often mathematical puzzles that he works out over many failed attempts. A good example is the three-circuit labyrinth, pictured above, that required interlaying and nesting four layers of glass to create an uninterrupted circular path that your finger can follow from the outer sphere to the centre sphere.

“The fundamental question of glass,” says Clarke, “is what can you do with a bubble? We have been able to come up with bubbles that can capture a vacuum so strong that energy has trouble passing through it, and bubbles that can hold immensely low temperatures.”

Lucas loves his craft, in part because, he says, “Any sufficiently forgotten technology is indistinguishable from magic. What I do works on the fine line between magic and reality. There are endless possibilities to what can be created, and that is what keeps me in love with what I do. There’s always something new to discover and make, so I pose the question, what would you like to do with a bubble?”