Shattering the Myth
A constructive notion
The old adage, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” is a warning about criticizing others when you yourself possess the same flaws. A worthy lesson, but its meaning hinges on the presumably shared notion that a glass house is a fragile structure, incapable of protecting its inhabitants for very long. Dr. Kaitlyn Becker, the d’Arbeloff Career Development Professor in Mechanical Engineering, seeks to dispel that idea by promoting glass as an effective and environmentally friendly construction material, and developing new manufacturing strategies in glass 3D printing and casting.
“I got involved in glassblowing as a freshman at MIT,” she says, “and am now a senior instructor in MIT’s Glass Lab. While a student, I became very interested in the intersection between design and manufacturing. I was excited to both see and feel how concepts from my classes in classical mechanics, thermal fluids, and structures came to life in the integrated design and manufacturing process of glassblowing.”
Looking around for creative applications of glass, Dr. Becker didn’t have to search far. “So many buildings in Cambridge and Somerville are being pulled apart to make room for new construction,” she says. “I wondered about the lifecycle of brick and concrete and where it goes when buildings get knocked down.” She learned that traditional construction materials like concrete have limited reuse and end up in landfills. Dr. Becker thinks glass can be a better option.
“Glass has immense compressive strength,” she says. “I believe we can make modular blocks that are strong enough to keep a structure standing and, should it need to get torn down in the future, the blocks can be tapped apart and melted in a furnace to be used again.” For the purpose of this project, the ultimate goal will be to construct a load-bearing wall, then add arches, windows, and construction inserts to prove the concept in different contexts.
“Glass has many interesting characteristics that we don’t always get to appreciate, and glassblowing gives me an opportunity to practice engineering concepts—working mind and hand—while making something that can be both useful and beautiful. I helped to start a glass band at MIT, where all the instruments were made from glass. I played glass percussion in an MIT Wind Ensemble concert and one of my oboes was included in the MIT Museum 150th-anniversary show.”
Because most people consider glass to be brittle, this is considered a high-risk undertaking, not the kind of project a funder would be willing to support. Also, glass is a notoriously difficult material to work with, requiring very high heat and careful annealing; according to Dr. Becker, “Material processing also becomes substantially more challenging with every increase of 100 degrees Celsius.” Bottle glass (which is a soda lime glass) melts around 1100 degrees Celsius, and that’s low compared to borosilicate, but a significant increase over the working temperature of the types of soda lime used in most glassblowing and glass casting studios.
The first two components of the three-part project—establishing a feasible design concept for structural glass construction elements, and developing manufacturing methods for mass production and customization of the glass building blocks—have to happen in parallel. “The design of an object influences the means by which they are made, but those means also inform good design or make news designs possible,” says Dr. Becker, “so it’s imperative that they are done at the same time.” The final part of the project will be to experiment with different types of glass to see what works best and is most easily reclaimable, in addition to creating manufacturing means that enable design with higher temperature glass.
A clear future
“In an ideal future,” says Dr. Becker, “all energy costs would be covered via renewable sources, and all construction materials would follow a circular lifecycle with little to no material added to landfills. Currently, however, hundreds of millions of tons of material from construction and demolition sites are sent to landfills, the majority of which come from demolition. Reclaimable glass building materials would greatly benefit the environment.”
In addition, this project will provide Dr. Becker with a unique opportunity to blend her passions and expertise in glass forming, engineering, and manufacturing. “Combining different worlds—artisanal glassblowing, machine design, and manufacturing—is exciting for me, as well as challenging. This will be the most substantial project I’ve undertaken, with the greatest potential for positive environmental and societal impact. It will give me the courage to pitch more projects that I believe in.”