Joe Gregar — Fourth-Generation Master Glassblower
|1999 R&D 100 Award Winner
Joe Gregar (left), with colleague Ken Anderson, puts the finishing touches on a Gregar Extractor. The innovative extractor represents a major advance in solvent-based chemical extraction from solid samples. The Gregar Extractor is available for licensing. (Photo by Stanley Niehoff, Argonne National Laboratory.)
Beyond the tubes and condensers and thimbles, there’s a human story behind the Gregar extractor, one about craftsmanship and pride in a job well done. When Gregar, a fourth-generation scientific glassblower who’s been practicing his profession for 32 years, talks about the work involved in making his extractor, you can see that for him it’s a labor of love. He likes to tell you how he’s simplified the fabrication of the design, so that now it’s "fairly uncomplicated." Pointing out a way to eliminate a splice, he notes how much "nicer" it looks this way. He talks about cutting and bending tubes, blowing a bubble in the glass across from a joint, constructing the body and then using a graphite paddle to obtain its angled bottom. He offers tips on when to let a piece cool, when to keep things hot, when to work quickly.
Eventually he comes to the last assembly, the stage at which he attaches the vapor arm to the extractor body. Joining this side arm to the main body is complicated by the fact that the arm, bent to fit the body’s shape, is made from a single piece of glass tubing. This is Joe’s personal preference, because he doesn’t like to piece the arm together and leave splices showing: "Using one piece, the finished extractor has a more professional appearance," he says.
Joining the pieces Gregar’s way requires the glassblower to "work" three attachment points simultaneously, keeping all three areas hot while also making sure the glass components to be joined are lined up properly. Most of us, given such a chore, would mainly be trying not to burn ourselves. But according to Joe, "Now, this is when glassblowing gets exciting!"
When Gregar works, he’s having fun — a man in his element. But he’s also a member of a dwindling fraternity. When he came to Argonne in 1980, he was one of seven scientific glassblowers employed by the Laboratory — now, he’s the last one remaining. The American Scientific Glassblowers Society (of which Gregar is past president, and currently the Midwest Section’s director) numbers fewer than a thousand members. (Gregar points out, however, that many working glassblowers in private industry do not join the professional society.) As the world around us becomes ever more relentlessly "high-tech," how much longer can we count on having people like Joe Gregar — inventors and craftsmen and, yes, artists — among us, people who can solve problems without resorting to sophisticated electronics or those ubiquitous computers?
Could glassblowing — scientific glassblowing — some day become a lost art? No, say Joe and Ken, because if we ever lost it, we would have to reinvent it. So long as there are scientists to pursue chemical research, there will be extractions to be done, and glassware to do them, and glassblowers to make the apparatus. But itis becoming harder for institutions to support their own full-time, scientific glassblowers in-house, and that means a shrinking ability to meet demands for highly specialized, custom glassware.
It took more than a century before Joe Gregar and Ken Anderson managed to render Franz von Soxhlet’s invention obsolete. One of these days, some glassblower yet unborn will probably come up with a device that surpasses the Gregar extractor, too. But that’s going to take a while … especially since Ken and Joe keep improving on it!
Based on material prepared by Floyd Bennett of Argonne's Information and Publishing Division.
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The Innovative Gregar Extractor
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