University of Calgary

A glass act for science

UToday HomeFebruary 10, 2012

By Carly Moran

Much research wouldn’t be possible without specialized equipment. For some faculties, unique glass laboratory instruments are critical to success in teaching and research. The scientific glassblower on campus, Mark Toonen, has filled that specialized need for the past 15 years.

In Canada, the ability to source specialized glass instruments can be challenging and expensive with only a handful of formally-trained scientific glassblowers in North America. The University of Calgary is one of only a few Canadian universities that offer this service to instructors and researchers on site through the Chemistry Glass Shop.

The most satisfying aspect of Toonen’s work is collaborating with researchers to design instruments that support their projects. This skill takes mastery in the physical capabilities of glass and a keen understanding of design principles that allow the instrument to perform accurately under various conditions. He often has to work to one-tenth of a millimetre precision.

Designing a new instrument involves both sides equally, with researchers determining what they need to accomplish and Toonen determining how it can be done.

“I often head to the lab to see how things work,” says Toonen. “Working closely with researchers allows me to determine the critical aspects that require the most attention. The final design comes from focusing on the end use.”

Toonen has designed instruments for many areas, including chemistry, petroleum engineering, medicine and environmental design. One of the smallest instruments he has created had a total width of 20 millimetres, with an inner glass coil measuring four millimeters in diameter.

“It’s fulfilling to know that the pieces I create enable researchers to continue their important work,” says Toonen. “I enjoy learning that a piece I design will be utilized for research that might not have been possible without it.”

Toonen also repairs thousands of glass instruments every year for faculties and departments across campus. Although he’s able to fix the majority of the broken items, what he’s not able to repair he salvages as parts for new instruments.

Toonen decided to enter the field after watching his father spend 34 years in glassblowing at the University of Alberta. After finishing high school, he journeyed to Holland for three years of intense training at Leidse Instrumentmakers School. Out of a class of 35 students, Toonen was the only person to complete the training. He is a member of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society.