Thursday, November 7, 2013

Uranium Glass:

 Still in Production

Art Glass by Jon Goldberg
A couple of years ago, inspired by a new stamp, I wrote a post about Fiestaware, a company that once made glazes for their line of dinnerware from the by-product uranium from silver mining.  In it, I also talked about uranium glass, or "Vaseline glass," as this was another product that used uranium, in this case, to produce a yellow-green tint in glassware.  One of the fun features of uranium glass is that it glows under ultraviolet light.

In my previous blog, I said that the glassware was popular from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.  In fact, although I didn't say one way or another, every example of uranium glass I had ever seen, and every piece of uranium-glazed pottery, was an antique.  As far as I knew, no one used uranium in glassware or pottery any more.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I was touring a craft fair in Washington, DC, a few days ago and ran into a display of beautiful, modern glass sculptures made by a living, breathing artist--and it was emitting the green glow I have come to associate with uranium glass displayed under UV light.  A conversation with Jon Goldberg, the artist, confirmed that it was, indeed, uranium glass that he was using.

Now, a craft fair was not a place where I would expect to encounter anything related to the nuclear field, or where I would expect to engage in a conversation about whether the uranium was depleted or not, but Jon graciously answered all my questions.  He also pointed me to his supplier, Gaffer Glass, in Auckland, New Zealand.  A look at the Gaffer Glass website shows that they call the glass "uranium green," and they include on their website a report from the National Radiation Laboratory in New Zealand on the radioactivity levels in the glass. 

This report, in turn, led me to an Oak Ridge Associated Universities website that provides a more detailed discussion of uranium glass than I'd previously found, and gives information on the radiation exposures from such glass.  Among other things, the ORAU piece details various similar glassware and different names that have been used for it over the years.  Also, to my surprise, it identifies several manufacturers in the US that currently make products using uranium glass.  They indicate that such glassware is now produced only for decorative purposes, rather than for dinnerware, as was previously popular.  Finally, the ORAU discussion confirms my guess that, while antique uranium glass used natural uranium, newer uranium glass uses depleted uranium.

So once again, although the details are different, people have cleverly figured out a way to take a by-product and put it to productive--and even artistic--use.

[For those who are interested, the exposure information comes from US Nuclear Regulatory Commission report, NUREG 1717, and more detailed information is available in that report.]


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