unbreakable glass

Worth dying for? A glassy tale.

Pureover, pureover in packaging
The PureOver in its packaging. Glass and cardboard, no plastic in sight. The PureOver is designed to brew filter coffee but without the need for filters.

It was the middle of the afternoon and we had friends over, friends who wanted coffee but, “only a small cup”. What were our options? We could make a V60 which would be a bit of a waste or an Aeropress which, while great for a small coffee for one person, is pushing it a bit for two people (even if one only did want a “tiny” bit). It was time to dust off the PureOver. This all-glass brewing device makes approximately 2-300ml of filter coffee entirely without the need for any filters. It is my go-to brewing device for a decent sized cup of coffee for one person or a “small” and “tiny” cup for two people. The PureOver was designed by a group of glass-blowers in Portland (USA) who wanted to be able to brew drip coffee without waste filters. It is now made commercially in China and shipped around the world for people who want to brew likewise.

The PureOver works by creating a filter bed out of the coffee grounds themselves. The design of the brewer ensures that the coffee is fairly well packed at the bottom of the pot allowing the water to filter through but without (much) sediment falling into the cup underneath the brewer. I have written about the PureOver, including a “how-to” brew guide, elsewhere. The PureOver works well, brews a lovely cup of coffee and looks great. Which shows how well the hard bits have been hidden; much of life is an art where the performance hides the work behind it. In some parts of our lives this is obvious. Acting, for example needs to appear natural and not reveal the work that has gone into developing the character the actor plays. I think the same is true of teaching/tutoring* physics. Such teaching should be a seamless conversation and discussion between students and tutor, in some way hiding the work that has gone into the preparation of that conversation. The PureOver is exactly the same. There is a lot of physics that is within the filtration bed and the diffuser design, but the bit that I would like to focus on is the bit that we look straight through without noticing. It is the role of the glass.

The diffuser sitting on top of the Pour Over coffee brewer. The holes are to ensure that the water falls evenly and slowly onto the grounds below.

The PureOver is made of borosilicate glass which was first invented by Otto Schott (1851-1935) in the nineteenth century. It is made by combining silica with boron trioxide (B2O3). One of the things that makes borosilicate glass so special is that it has a really low thermal expansion coefficient. From a practical point of view, and why this matters in the PureOver, is that it means that it is not likely to shatter as you add boiling (or just off the boil) water to the glass. You can brew coffee without the brewer breaking. We just want to be able to use the coffee brewer without thinking too much about it, using borosilicate glass allows us to do this.

If we do think about it a bit more though, the thermal expansion coefficient reveals something to us of the atomic structure of the material. All atoms in a solid vibrate, as they gain more energy (in the form of heat), the amplitude of that vibration increases, so they vibrate more. But atoms within a solid structure do not vibrate symmetrically. It is much harder (it takes more energy) to push them together than it is to pull them apart. This means that as the temperature increases they can vibrate ever so slightly further away from each other than they can towards each other and the net effect is that the atoms get further away from each other and the material expands**. The thermal expansion coefficient can therefore reveal clues as to the internal energies and structure of different solids. Applying this to borosilicate glass itself gets problematic as glass is a disordered rather than a well defined crystalline structure, but the principle is there.

We often come across borosilicate glass in “Pyrex” glassware, although since the 1930s/40s “pyrex” has been made of soda-lime glass rather than the original borosilicate. Nonetheless, it is a story involving pyrex that provides the title of this post. In 1953, a chemist working at Corning Glass Works in New York State, got a surprise as he dropped a piece of experimental glass he had been working on when he removed it from the furnace. Donald Stookey had serendipitously discovered “Pyroceram” a type of glass that was not only extremely heat resistant, it had also bounced, not smashed, when he dropped it. However despite being commercialised for other specialist products, Pyroceram was not, initially, used for kitchen items because the parent company Corning, also sold Pyrex and did not want any competition with that other successful product. So more research was done on Pyroceram which did lead to new commercial opportunities, including one that we probably have with us right now. Because the toughness aspect of the Pyroceram type glasses developed into what we now know as “Gorilla Glass” which is probably the screen on your smartphone.

Perhaps not quite how the designers imagined brewing a coffee. I brew the PureOver into my V60 jug in order to avoid the few grains of coffee that get through the filter from going into the final mug of coffee.

You can read more about the story of this discovery (and how it got used in the Apple iPhones) in the June 2022 issue of Physics World. Stookey went on to be awarded the US National Medal of Technology by President Reagan and of course, Gorilla Glass is now found in many products. So you would be forgiven for thinking that this marvel of technology is a recent phenomenon as an unbreakable glass would surely have been highly valued if it had been invented earlier. The story of a Roman craftsman may provide a contrasting pause for thought. As described by Petronius (quoted in the book “The Alchemy of Glass”***):

There was once a workman who made a glass cup that was un-breakable. So he was given an audience of the Emperor with his invention; he made Caesar give it back to him and then threw it on the floor. Caesar was as frightened as he could be. But the man picked up his cup from the ground: it was dented like a bronze bowl; then he took a little hammer out of his pocket and made the cup quite sound again without any trouble. After doing this he thought he had himself seated on the throne of Jupiter especially when Caesar said to him: ‘Does anyone else know how to blow glass like this?’ Just see what happened. He said not, and then Caesar had him beheaded. Why? Because if his invention were generally known we should treat gold as dirt.

*I am careful to keep my comment here to tutoring as that is what I have most experience of. If you teach larger groups or in a school, please do let me know what you think, whether this applies to teaching too, in the comments.

**See for example “Thermal Physics, CJ Adkins, Hodder and Stoughton, 1976

*** “The Alchemy of Glass; counterfeit, imitation, and transmutation in Ancient Glassmaking”, Marco Beretta, Watson Publishing International, 2009

For more about glass including the question of how transparent glass is, please see this post by Bobreflected.