WHAT IS ‘PLASMA’?
‘Plasma’ (Greek: something malleable) is a fully or partially ionized gas, in which the atoms decay into positive ions and negative electrons. This happens either at high temperatures or under a high voltage with a high frequency. By breaking up the matter into its components, the gas suddenly acquires new properties. For example, different gases are suddenly visible as different coloured lights which are in constant motion. In nature, such phenomena can be seen as lightning discharges, northern lights or fire.
INVENTOR OF THE ARTIFICIAL PLASMA LIGHT
- Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was born in Smiljan, Croatia, which then belonged to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.
He developed the first plasma flash lamps early in the 20th century, which he used for the study of wireless electrical power transmission. Tesla invented the alternating current and the ‘free energy’, which is now the basis for computer technology, satellite technology and space exploration. His genius was underestimated at the time, but nowadays he is often referred to as ‘the greatest inventor of all times’.
- Tesla’s discoveries were only developed commercially by the American scientists Bill Parker and Larry Albright at the beginning of the 1980s. Then the plasma light balls became famous worldwide.
- At the end of the 20th century, some American light artists found out that the light effects are influenced by both the transformer technology and the glass formation process. One of these artists, Ed Kirshner from Oakland in California, discovered the so-called ‘pattern’ effect in 1998. This is a light fan effect that can be achieved particularly well with neon gas.
- Ed Kirshner and Bernd Weinmayer met for the first time at a glass auction in Seattle in 2003. Since then, numerous new gas mixtures and effects have been developed in joint workshops, which both Kirshner and Weinmayer incorporate in their own artwork.
PHILOSOPHY, MANUFACTURING PROCESS AND MECHANISM OF WEINMAYER PLASMA OBJECTS
Most of my favourite themes for plasma objects have conceptually matured over the years, most of which represent images that reflect nature’s diversity. When I manage to bring one of my many ideas to life, it feels almost like liberation. The proportion and dimension of the new object is fixed in my head before I start, and so I rarely have to improvise during the manufacturing process. Small sketches in advance sometimes help to illustrate a position even better.
Similar to my bottles with sculptures inside, plasma light objects have a functional purpose in addition to their free, creative design and form. Different gas fillings require specially shaped glass cavities, so that the desired light effect can actually be achieved and preserved.
The thing that fascinates me most about glass as a material is its clear transparency, which makes it such a unique raw material. The crown for me is the combination of this pure material and one which is illuminated by the interplay of coloured lights on the glass surface or perhaps even in the glass...
Many glass artists are experimenting with a mirror reflection of natural light. My goal is to capture light in a hollow glass body and at the same time keep its transparency. To accomplish this, I only use pure noble gases like neon, xenon, argon or krypton, all natural components of our air and therefore 100% transparent. The gas mixture is refined through specific elements which have a positive influence on the light effects. This mixing process is similar to a good recipe. If the basic ingredients and spices are carefully combined, a delicious dish is produced.
After hollow glassware has been produced, first by forming it at 1,600°C by hand, then annealing it at 530°C and finally placing it in a vacuum at 320°C, the relevant gas mixtures can be thoroughly tested. Even during the filling process, the temporary lighting effect is visible. I continuously note down the minimal inert gas pressure and therefore have a large record – like a kind of recipe book – of the good and also the disappointing mixes, which allow me to recreate them in the future.
Natural gases can reproduce nearly the entire colour spectrum. Because it is important to me that my gas mixtures remain vivid for many years, I cannot use all the noble gases. For example, helium has a very small atomic structure and will diffuse through the glass in a relatively short time, meaning that its effect doesn’t last long enough. However, it is possible to re-open the tubulation tube and re-fill the glass object with little effort at any time.
Why does the plasma light up even in the most delicate structures?
Every plasma object is connected to a high frequency transformer via an electrode - mostly built into the base. A small current of about 20-100 watts is enough to make the unobtrusive lighting structures dance. As a comparison, a neon strip light usually contains two electrodes, and its arc searches for the fastest way from electrode A to electrode B. My artworks, on the other hand, only have one electrode and the light is therefore constantly looking for a second electrode or earth point. The outside of the glass object or the humidity has enough earth potential, so the light evenly follows all of the glass contours. And so, the plasma light lights up into even the fine structures.
It is also interesting to observe what happens when a plasma object is touched. The hand is a stronger earth point than the air, and the light is drawn – often totally – to the hand. A plasma object will light up differently if it is standing alone in a room with higher earthing potential (for example, due to metal objects nearby) than several objects standing next to each other in an empty room. Too strong earth points close by, or many plasma objects next to one another, should be avoided, as they can interfere with each others’ effects.