Introduction: Solar Sonnet

About: Alice Gong uncovers new ways of meaningful making within contemporary design, art, craft, and technology. Informed by the evolving dynamics between analog, mechanical, and automated processes, she is constantl…

Inspired by Augustin Mouchot’s solar powered experiments, this set of nesting glass cloches with color changing netting is intended to capture one’s curiosity about solar to thermal conversion. Part of the WhatNot Collection, titled Eighteen Sixty Six, these objects were exhibited at Rossana Orlandi during Milan Design Week.

Borosilicate lab glass
Thermochromic plastic netting

Small: 12 cm D x 16 cm H

Medium: 15 cm D x 19 cm H

Large: 18 cm D x 22 cm H

Step 1: Early Uses of Sun Power: Hero of Alexandria

Fascinated by the inventions of the past and the substantial precedent of solar energy, I researched the history of experiments performed to understand our relationship to the sun.

Hero of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician and engineer who was active in his native city of Alexandria, Roman Egypt (c. 10 CE - c. 70 CE). His fountain instrument was a device composed of many chambers with water and air, where the water transferred from one container to another when placed in the sun. Under the sun the solar-heated air would expand, exerting pressure on the water inside the space, forcing it out. Other times his instruments would exert out air rather than water, making a sound as it passes through a whistle attached to the opening.

French landscape architect Isaac de Caus once said something about these new and rare inventions of water works, "an admirable engine, the which being placed at the foot of a statue, shall send forth sound when the sun shineth upon it, so as it shall seem that the statue makes said sound". He he is describing an instrument that sung when the morning sun struck it.

Step 2: Early Uses of Sun Power: Hot Box Experiments

With an increase of glass production in the 1700s, scientists began to experiment with this material's ability to trap heat. They were not unanimous as to the nature of sunlight, however the inventions of Horace De Saussure, Sir John Hershel, and Samuel Pierpont Langley helped begin the development of solar technology.

They attempted to burn, cook and melt material withing layers of stacked glass boxes. We now know that light energy can penetrate through clear glass covers, but not allow thermal radiation to pass. The hot box experiments proved that the sun shined with equal force at higher and lower elevations. Lower elevations have more carbon dioxide and water vapor compared to air between mountain peaks, thus the dense atmosphere holds the solar heat more effectively.

Step 3: Early Uses of Sun Power: Augustin Mouchot

The first solar-powered machines were invented as early as the 1800s. Augustin Mouchot was the inventor of these early solar-powered engines and even converted solar energy into mechanical steam power. He was interested in finding alternative energy sources as a way to compete with England, believing that the coal used to fuel the industrial revolution would eventually run out.

He replaced the glass boxes with a 360 degree glass surface to have a higher collection area. He combined two independent solar developments, the glass heat trap and burning mirrors. He made collapsible and transportable solar ovens, pumps, and wine distillers. He made a clock mechanism that automated the rotation of the reflector on his solar collector to follow the sun's rays from East to West. His solar collector had copper sheets coated with burnish silver, covering a total 56 sq feet of reflecting surface. He demonstrated his solar machine by making ice cubes and to run a printing press.

Step 4: Sketching on Transparency: Mimicing Glass

Transparency paper was used to iterate simply on the basis that it speaks for the material, glass. I began to sketch rigid, cubic forms thinking about the construction of objects made from scoring and adhering flat pieces from sheets. Then nesting objects were drawn and imagined based on the process of glass casting and blowing.

Step 5: Glass Objects for Formal, Functional, Technical Inspiration

Step 6: Glass Form Design

I wanted to create nesting objects that resembled these historic parabolic forms while merging them with a more practical function, such as that of a cloche. The form is composed of two parabolic domes, a small one serves as the container handle and a large one is attached facing the opposite direction for capturing.

Here you can see the final fabrication drawings that I sent to the manufactures along with some previous iterations of the form as drawings and renderings

Step 7: Glass Fabrication

The cloches were made in borosilicate glass at the manufacturing company, Reliance Glass. As these forms are quite large they required rare stocks of tubes that had wide diameters, making the project become expensive to produce. If I went the glass-blowing route, the finish of the glass would not be aesthetically scientific or as smooth. *There are great videos of crazy lab glass forming on Youtube.

Step 8: Circle Loom Making

The netting on the surface of my glass cloches were knit on circle looms by hand. The goal was to knit a layer of netting around each glass cloche with this thermochromic material to illustrate a change in temperature. The diameter of the loom dictates the diameter of the knitted tube, so I had to custom make looms to fit my cloches. I fabricated two sets of looms that varied in dimensions so that I could choose how tight I wanted the knit to wrap around each of the cloches. Having two sets of sizes was also to take into consideration the varying constraints of different materials.

The looms were routed out of plywood on a CNC machine and the pegs were cut from a single wooden rod. I made a Rhino file and set up tool paths on RhinoCam, where the lines cut out the negative space between the looms, and points designated the holes. I used two bits, one for each of the two hole sizes so that it would match according to the diameter of my pegs and nails. Make sure that these pegs fit into the holes of the loom structure, even glues them down if necessary, otherwise it would be impossible to knit on them. The best way to navigate around Using a Circle Loom is to watch Youtube video tutorials.

Step 9: Thermochromatic Pigment

Thermochromic materials comes in many forms but for this purpose, pigments and inks were the best option. Many of them change to white under warming temperatures but these temperature ranges can vary. Finding color to color changing materials can be harder, but a trick is to have that thing that you are applying the thermochromic pigment to be the color that you would want at the end of the reaction. For this example, I experimented with paint bases and paint thinners that were white. This muted the brightness of my purple pigment but also made the change much more obvious. if I had a paint base that was blue and a thermochromtic pigment that was yellow, the color of my solution would be green in room temperature but would change to blue under warm conditions.

Step 10: Material Exploration

I ordered clear spools of PVC tubing in two of the smallest sizes available, with each roll being 100 yards. I injected the thermochromic solution into the tubing using syringes with different Luer Lock needle sizes.

Step 11: Injection Process

The injection process worked well after a couple yards but would only make it through about 35% of the the 100 yards before becoming extremely slow and pointless, not to mention painful on my hand. I first tried injecting the solution after the tubing was already knit, so I considered this as a possible factor that could have slowed down the process.

Step 12: Injection Process: Problem Solving

I had no problem injecting water through 100 yards so I tried to thin out the solution a much as possible without having it completely mute out the colors. I also attempted injecting the solution while submerging the skein of tubing in a bucket of hot water (which is why the color is white and not blue). Nothing seemed to help.

Step 13: Injection Process: Pneumatic Pump

Nothing was working, so it was time to bring out the pneumatic pump. This helped push the solution through 50% of the tubing... and eventually I had to accept that it would not go through and cut a tiny slit for the syringe to be inject halfway. You can't really notices these breaks but it does create weak spots that are prone to breaking, and the imperfection drove me insane! The final problem was that even if I managed to inject solution through the entirety of the 100 yards, a week later the solution would dry and settle along on one side of the tubing's interior and create large air gaps throughout. The experimentation has been temporary put on pause as I chose to go with a different material.

Step 14: Knitting Thermochromic Doll Hair..

It is very hard to find and buy continuous strands of thermometric fibers, and it has to be continuous. You need yards and yards of material for knitting, otherwise there would be knots and ends all throughout your knit from tying strands together. This particular plastic material is actually used for making doll hair. I combined two colors, a blue that changes to dark violet under extremely cold conditions and a pink that turns white above room temperature, in order to create a wider thermochromatic range.

Step 15: Thermoelectric Generator

Electronics is an area that I would like to improve upon, as I have often run into obstacles executing these kinds of projects in the past. I wanted to create a thermoelectric generator using the Seebeck Effect, to illustrate using thermochromic materials, the phenomena of solar to thermal conversion through multiple layers of glass. I tested samples where I inserted copper wire into the tubing so that when a current was run through the knitted pattern, the color will change accordingly. The goal was to embed a Peltier module into a base for the nested glass cloches so that I could use these objects to illustrate the conversion of heat energy as a temperature difference, into electric energy. This would not only show the structure of the knitted substrate but further illustrate a scientific phenomena using a designed object.

Furthermore, the long term goal was to create a set of objects for the home that had the duel function of a small electricity generator, much inspired by the work of Caventou

Step 16: Final

One moment all is consistently the same.
Next, there manifests a change.

Cast under the sun, wavelengths reflect.

Within the layers, heat collects.

Experiments of wonder, or maybe fright.

What finite powers are in our right?

Unanimous curiosity about light,

To capture changes out of sight.

Glass Challenge 2017

Participated in the
Glass Challenge 2017