Question of Sustainability: Insulation vs Re-Use
I sometimes find myself thinking of the ancient people in Mesopotamia first looking into a fire pit the morning after a night spent stranded on a beach and seeing a reflective surface looking back at them. Running their hands across its surface, feeling its still warm body as they conversed on what the remnants of this fire could be. Digging out the object they must have had the same feeling I have reaching into a modern day kiln, surprise and astonishment. However, I feel I know to much to enjoy the mysticism of the glass. To these individuals the explanations for this object must have drawn on their beliefs as well as their knowledge of the world at that time. God could have played as easily into the reasons for why this object had been left behind than for the chemical and physical properties we know happened to be present. That moment is frozen in time, maybe in many places and not owned entirely by one particular culture; because for us the evolution of this material began as these individuals started to replicate their findings. Putting fire to earth to discover if what had occurred in one location could be remade. As glass artists we are the legacy not of the material but of the question they ask them selves: “What could done with it?”.
The problems that must have pledged them in that first attempt to recreate the material that we now call glass is something that we are still striving towards answering. What is always true is that over time technology becomes cheaper and in the glass world our technology is still relatively primitive. Using combustibles is still the major way we heat our glass. Or is the main source of our electrical power for ovens. So much like that moment of discovery that I see in my head occurring on a beach some where near modern day Syria. I feel that I had that moment when in 2010 I stepped onto the new electric hot glass stage for the Corning Museum of Glass’s Glass at Sea Program. For the past 4 years I have thought about both what I need to ask myself as a glass artist, due to inherit a world much more carbon regulated. It is my feeling that for political speediness it is better to propose this thought as a stride toward removing our studios from the grid or very far from it (less for the obvious environmental benefits). The industrial naval design industry has been a large influence on me as far as how to generate power. First, a ship like a naval air craft carrier is completely off the grid and is independent of fuel needs for 20 years if need be. A nuclear powered reactor is something I would love to have in the basement of my studio but I am fairly sure the I.A.E.A. (International Atomic Energy Agency) would have something to say about that, let alone the neighbors. But I believe that we can look around us for the models that set forth the ideas of the future. Stepping on that stage in Corning gave me chills thinking that this was what a glass studio would look like in the future. All we need to do is think of how to power it. Or do we?
The next idea that drives much of our glass studio thinking currently. It is the insulation solution. Studios should insulate their furnaces to increase efficiency. Maybe this is the better question to ask, the current system of natural gas usage means insulation is the better and cheaper option for any hot shop owner. So we look at fuel usage and put very efficient combustion burners and mixers with recuperated air systems and 9 inches (22.86 cm) of insulation. Using cullet prolongs the life of the furnace and can be melted at a lower temperature (was melted from a batch at some point). So this is the fork in the road and for many of glass studios we are currently stuck on this path. It is pivotal that we have good efficient well insulated furnaces to prolong the ability to use gas. But I think with the natural gas boom we should realize that we are currently standing on the last crutch and the other leg is coming off soon. Insulation to me is much like fuel efficiency standards set by the government, they are simply leading to the inevitable.
Again returning to the idea of naval technologies that might be more easily attained than the nuclear option. L.N.G.’s are Liquified Natural Gas carriers and they offer an interesting idea on how maybe the a reheating furnace or glory hole of the future might operate. Ships often use a generator to power an electric motor, electric motors are extremely simple and provide vastly more power. You are already starting to see cars us this technology today in hybrid engine’s. Well the L.N.G.’s take it one step further. Their pillaging some of their natural gas to power their engine. What is interesting is the way they use a small amount of their gas to get a lot out of it. The gas basically is used to heat a steam turbine that can generate a lot of energy as the steam is put under compression. A good little documentary about this is on BBC called Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections. So my theory is what if we had a furnace using a system that pillages its own heat to create energy. The furnace would be turned on using outside power and heated up to a point where the steam was beginning to generate power, then switching over to the furnace’s own power system steam would be created by the heat of the furnace, running a it would eventually be running on its own. Finally taking a furnace off life support. Now envisioning something like this is fun and for myself comes entirely as only seeking answers for future problems. But what I wish I was able to see more of is institutions taking on this role of experimentation. To think of how I have seen studios run in most school settings is atrocious. Wasteful practices being the number one reason for expenditures of materials and gas. The trend over the last few 10 years is for universities to seek grants for bigger expanded studios with more benches and more furnaces. I would truly love to see the school that collaborates with the engineers to help develop possible even theoretical furnaces of the future that can be used on a small scale. Much like those ceramic teachers at the first Toledo glass conference, we simple need to be asking the question of could this be done? The act of asking can lead to some interesting answers.
The main idea I would like to address is that thought experiments are an important way to envision the future. Electric glass studios are already here and for us to envision how we power a studio means we can participate in the solutions of the future. We have already moved into getting more from the carbon atom for less usage of it. A question which will be fundamental to the millennial generation will be what powers our economy 500 years from now?