For Marianna Pittner, glass blowing is not art.
“It’s a science,” she says.
She means it in a literal sense. Pittner, who is among an increasing number of women working in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields, is also among a rare breed of scientific glassblowers who work in laboratory research.
For 20 years, Pittner has been the go-to glassblower at the Chevron Richmond Technology Center (RTC) in Richmond, Calif., where she is tasked with creating a wide variety of custom glass apparatus for a team of ambitious chemists.
From a sizable workshop equipped with torches, lathes and oodles of glassware of varying heat sensitivities, Pittner repairs and creates complex distillation towers and custom scientific glass apparatuses that Chevron researchers need in their quest to modernize products and processes in the production of transportation fuels. The fuel additive Techron, for example, is one of the more widely known inventions created at the RTC.
By the way, petrochemicals are used to make the main active ingredient of Technon, which is a proprietary component of the product. AFPM respects intellectual property and cannot identify the specific ingredient. We can say, however, the chemistry is based on phenol, which is derived from propylene and benzene, and alkoxy reactants like butylene oxide and propylene oxide. Those are derived from butylene and propylene.
Daily, chemists drop into Pittner’s workshop with requests to create custom glass pieces of varying specifications. At times, she’ll create pieces straight from examples that chemists draw by hand in notebooks. Often, she’ll meet with chemists to come up with blueprints for designs that solve problems in the research process, such as creating glass apparatus that manipulate direction of flow and temperature of the solutions undergoing tests.
“I will never tell the chemist I can’t do that,” Pittner said. “I will figure it out; I enjoy the discovery. You have to be very logical and problem-solving to make it in this field.”
Pittner didn’t expect to become a scientific glassblower. Originally from Hungary, she initially tried to get into a training program to create custom design jewelry from precious stones. She was told she couldn’t enter the school, but also informed about a training school on scientific glassblowing, which she found interesting.