Like Moths to Quantum Flames: JamFactory captures the movement of light

A new JamFactory exhibition sees science blended with traditional glass-blowing, as nanoparticles illuminate the path of light in mesmerising fashion.

Light through glass. Everyone know how it goes. A bit gets reflected and the rest slows down. The end result — that good old pencil behind the glass of water looks bent. If you were awake in physics class you would know that it’s all about the laws of refraction. And the reason glass is usually clear is that the unique physical makeup of regular glass doesn’t absorb photons, those very industrious bundles (or quanta) of light particles.

Now what happens when things get a bit more complex? Just add luminescent nanoparticles. Maybe you know them better as ‘upconversion nanoparticles’. Okay, so this tech talk is already inducing a nano nap. Think of it in another way. In 1910, the BFGoodrich company came up with the idea of adding carbon black particles to rubber to extend the life of its tyres. Nano technology had hit the road. Wind the tape back further. Artisans in medieval Europe discovered that permanent red could be achieved in glass sheets with the addition of gold particles during the fusing process. Add other kinds of powdered metallic oxides, sulphides or compounds and a rich and stable palette of possibilities emerged such as cobalt oxide creating blue, nickel oxides creating reds and so on.

Today, we take it for granted that the glass of many wine bottles is green without knowing that its colour is due to the addition of iron and chromium to an otherwise colourless soda-lime glass base.

In her current role as creative director of JamFactory Glass Studio, Karen Cunningham has been collaborating with the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS) and Centre for Nanoscale Biophotonics (CNBP) to explore nanoparticles as a primary constituent of how light may be subverted or augmented in hand-made glass art.


The light to which these creative and scientific moths have been drawn is this luminescent sprite, the nanoparticle. Internationally this field is a hot zone. The unique light-absorbing and -emitting properties are proving to have the potential to bring significant advances in biological sensing, biomedical imaging and 3D volumetric display effectively by altering the way light is transmitted.

Australian research projects are testing potential by creating forms of ‘hybrid glass’ which combine the properties of luminescent nanoparticles with the transparency and shaping properties of glass. From this has evolved a new method, known as ‘direct doping’ involving synthesising the nanoparticles and glass separately and then combining them.

The best outcome is that the nanoparticles remain intact and well-dispersed throughout the glass and so remain functional, with little impact on the transparency of the glass.


Now direct doping is something that Karen Cunningham and generations of glass artists know a lot about. It happens whenever the glass form is enhanced by colour introduced by any number of processes such as rolling molten glass in powdered colour, or adding colour units (cane, murrine or frit) into the molten mass.

As common experience reveals, the end result is a fascinating alchemic blend of chromatic and optics which deserves to be called ‘liquid light’. The big difference is that scientists work under laboratory conditions while glass artists and artisans work in studios and factories. To stand on the viewing platform at JamFactory and see the glassblowers going about their business is to get a sense of how traditional the core processes remain. And also operating on a generous scale, as opposed to laboratory conditions where crucibles are miniscule by comparison and material measures very precise.

The synthesised glass too, as used under laboratory conditions, melts at around half the temperature of conventional glass which, it was assumed, would alter or destroy nanoparticles — certainly gold and, possibly, diamonds. Despite such operational and systemic differences, Cunningham found shared interests such as the well-known Lycurgus Cup, a fourth century glass vessel held by the British Museum, London. Depending on the direction and angle of a light source, the cup mysteriously changes its appearance from a deep, transparent red to an opaque green. It is now understood that this optical effect is caused by naturally occurring gold and silver nanoparticles, which are invisible to the naked eye.


Cunningham embarked on her own program of research to see what happens when particles (diamond dust) were dispersed within glass units and subjected to a range of lighting (UV, LED and infra-red). Along the way, the artist saw the need to adopt a more ‘scientific’ approach to methodology. Her ‘artist sketchbook’ devoted to this project is an intriguing fusion of intuitive, hand-drawn observation and thumbnail sketches and formal, data-base grids tabulating step by step experiments in the use of different lighting with various glass mediums.

Some of the end results are showcased in Quantum Colour at JamFactory where Gallery Two is given the full lights out — laser filter treatment to allow viewers to experience the mesmerizing qualities of light fluorescing within glass under the partial control of Karen Cunningham’s creative instincts and technical skills but ultimately following its own path
of self determination. Cunningham has always sought beauty in her work. Quantum Colour promises to extend its parameters.

Karen Cunningham, Quantum Colour: Capturing The Movement Of Light
Friday, December 8 to Sunday, February 18

All images courtesy of Karen Cunningham

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.