Formafantasma Volcanic Ash
Ongoing trials into volcanic ash as an architectural material
Formafantasma’s 2014 project, De Natura Fossilium – carried out in collaboration with Gallery Libby Sellers – involved transforming materials from Mount Etna’s volcanic landscape into a collection of glass, basalt and textile creations. The potential of volcanic lava as a material for design and architecture was the basis of our discussions with Formafantasma.
Physical and optical characterisation
February - May 2016
Our work first led us to Istanbul, where we located a laboratory specialising in the development of glass-related technologies. We commissioned the lab to conduct a study on the properties of volcanic ash and how best to work with it in glass production. The chemical profile revealed high levels of aluminium oxide and iron oxide relative to standard glassmaking materials. This high metallic content necessarily means that the pure, unaltered form of the melted ash has a short working period, and the ash is not well suited to mouth blowing or larger formats. Our best options would likely be found in press moulding processes. We also learned that additives can be introduced to extend the working period and make the material more manageable.
Based on these findings, we decided to focus our efforts on developing volcanic glass bricks, blocks and pavers using available glass moulding techniques.
Betas ii - ii.iv
August 2016 - June 2017
Our findings in Istanbul led us to focus on glass moulding methods suitable for making bricks, blocks and pavers. The material needed to be as pure-volcanic as possible, and so we set for ourselves a minimum acceptable purity of 70% volcanic matter: a difficult but hopefully feasible goal.
We identified a northern Italian glass workshop to work with us on this phase of our project. We shared the knowledge gleaned from our research and leaned on their expertise in glass making. Initial testing reinforced our understanding that volcanic ash is challenging in traditional glass production: the high metal content makes for an aggressive, uncooperative material. We therefore conducted these glass betas using an old furnace that had already been designated for retirement. The betas proved more difficult than we anticipated. Solid brick formats with structural integrity were scarce; smaller formats like pavers were more achievable. Organic, naturally occurring and desirable textures did not come easily. More time was required.
Betas iii - iii.v
Kiln placement observations
April - June 2017
The biggest challenge posed by the glass betas was stabilising the material in larger brick and block formats, so we considered how we might reduce the risk while maintaining the same volume. Could we create a thin volcanic surface on top of a different, sturdier material? The terra-cotta brick emerged as a potential quality host for the volcanic ash surface/glaze. We identified an English brickyard that sustainably produces raw bricks from the clay, sand and wood naturally existing on their property. They agreed to work with us on a series of trials with the aim to produce enough successful volcanic-ash-glazed bricks for our installation at Exhibit Columbus. A series of glaze tests led us to the eventual formulation, kiln type and brick positioning. We ran four separate pilot firings, taking careful observations after each. Our yield success increased from about 30% on the first firing to close to 60% on the fourth. We are continuing to develop along this path.