Fungus on Glass

The tropical environment of Hawaiʻi is not kind to optical instruments. Tropical humidity can cause a host of issues ranging from corrosion of metal parts to decay of wooden and cardboard telescope structures. For those of us who build and use small telescopes the issues of tropical heat and humidity are rather concerning.

Fungus on Glass
Fungus colony on a small achromatic lens surface
Worst of all is the fungus. Impressively there are species of fungus that can grow and thrive on clean optical surfaces. It is hard to imaging a more hostile place to grow, seemingly devoid of nutrients and the moisture necessary for life.

I have seen camera lenses lost to the white fungus. A friend once showed me a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L, a $2000 lens, with fungus covering internal elements. Even on the “dry side” of Waimea the humidity was high enough to allow fungus to destroy this lens.

The problem is not an issue on the summit of Mauna Kea. The high altitude air typically exhibits a relative humidity of less than 10%. Several references note that a humidity of above 70% is needed to promote fungal growth on optics. We see no issues with fungal damage to the mirrors or instruments on the big ‘scopes.

Below the tropical inversion layer (about 6-7k feet) it is another issue entirely. Near sea level, where most of us live, humidity can remain above 80% much of the year. The warm and humid conditions of these islands are idea for growing anything, including the omnipresent fungal gardens that create the smells of a tropical landscape. Fungus is inescapable in this world, the spores drift on the wind and an stay dormant for decades, anywhere conditions are suitable fungus will grow.

The possibility of equipment damage was a major element in our buying a house. Waikoloa is located within one of the driest areas of the island. The humidity typically hovers in the 50’s, dry enough that I have had no issues with the multiple telescopes stored in the garage. Still, I do inspect stored equipment periodically, looking for the dreaded white fungus or other damage wrought by this tropical climate.

It is not a single species of fungus responsible for the problem. Apparently quite a few species are able to colonize an optical surface. Looking through the literature I find referenced to multiple species that can grow on optical glass…

The fungi which grow in optical instruments belong to the groups Phycomycetes, Ascomycetes and Fungi Imperfecti. The following species were frequently isolated from instruments which had been in New Guinea: Penicillium spinulosum, Thom.; P. commune, Thom.; P. citrinum, Thom.; Aspergillus niger, Van Tiegh.; Trichoderma viride, Pers. ex-Fr.; Mucor racemosus, Fres.; and M. ramannianus, A. Moeller. So far, Monilia crassa has not been isolated from Australian instruments, although Dr. W. G. Hutchinson (5) of the United States, found this to be a common species in the Panama zone, and it has also been recorded as frequent in West Africa by Major I. G. Campbell. – J.S. Turner, et al.1

I admit that the fungus can be pretty, in an odd sort of way considering the damage. Under a microscope it appears lacy, the mycelium fibrils growing across the glass in search of more nutrients to support the colony. In the center small round fruiting bodies are the launching point for new fungal spores.

I recently had another round of battle with fungus while restoring a collection of instruments that had been stored in a garage on the side of Hualalai. The high humidity had wrought impressive damage on both the optics and metal components of the telescopes. And there is fungus! Found in the eyepieces and on the telescope mirrors. During the cleaning and restoration of the instruments I found it necessary to completely dismantle many optical assemblies just to remove and kill the fungus. I some cases I was in time, but not completely, it is not without regret that I throw a $400 eyepiece into the trash.

Dealing with the fungus is imperative, cleaning and killing the growth before severe damage can be done may save the equipment. If the growth is severe enough the glass surface and the coatings can be damaged. Apparently the fungi can excrete hydrochloric acid, etching the surface and creating permanent damage.

Fungus on Glass
Fungus colony on a small achromatic lens surface
Minor damage may not be enough to ruin the device. It actually takes a great deal of damage to appreciably affect the performance of most optics. A few small specks of damage remaining on the surface after cleaning may not be noticeable. Inspection of each spot of damage with a microscope can be useful, Sometimes it is clearly damage of the surface and irrepairable. I have also found hard deposits that at first glance appeared to be damage under the core of fungal colonies that remained after cleaning. These may be removed using a soft wooden tool like a toothpick or chopstick.

Killing the fungi requires a solvent that will both kill the fungus while not damaging the optical surface. I find references to both alcohol as well as other solvents. A mix of 50/50 hydrogen peroxide and ammonia is recommended by some references. Along with cleaning the glass I am careful to soak all of the structural elements as well. The tube, the spacers and lock-rings can all harbor minuscule colonies or spores awaiting suitable conditions to grow again.

Optical fungicide solutions tend to be expensive and hard to obtain, but they are available from some optical equipment manufacturers. Alternatively, you can use a 50/50 mix of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and ammonia (NH3). Usually, 5 ml of each is adequate (10 cc in total). Mix just prior to use and do not store the mixed product. – Ismael Cordero, Community Eye Health Journal2

Living in a warm humid environment one must be vigilant and ready to deal with issues when found. Examine optics regularly, keep a can of WD-40 next to the tool box (and use it), store optics and electronics with plenty of ventilation and reduce the humidity to well below 70% if needed. Extra vigilance to preserve valuable equipment is the price of living in paradise.

  1. Tropic-Proofing of Optical Instruments by a Fungicide, J.S. Turner, E.I. McLennan, J.S. Rogers, & E. Matthaei, University of Melbourne, Nature 158 (Oct. 5, 1946) 469-473.
  2. Fungus: how to prevent growth and remove it from optical instruments, Ismael Cordero, Comm Eye Health Vol. 26 No. 83 2013 pp 57

Exploding Glass: Prince Rupert’s Drop

As anyone who has worked with glass knows, the material is fascinating. Glass is fragile, yet it can be extraordinarily strong. This is a seeming contradiction, but one that makes sense if you start to understand what makes glass crack.

Via Phil at Bad Astronomy, a truly awesome video on Prince Rupert’s Drop, a simple construct of glass that exhibits the strength and weakness of glass in a very visual way.

Science is cool!

A Cautionary Tale

At Keck we regularly move pieces of glass up to two meters across and weighing hundreds of pounds. These optics are nearly irreplaceable, visions of catastrophic damage to one of these pieces of glass is the stuff of nightmares. An observatory is built around the telescope, hundreds of tons of steel supporting the all important optics. While damage of any sort is a concern, much of the critical equipment can be repaired without major issue. It is the optics that are much harder and more expensive to replace. While these pieces of glass could be re-manufactured, it would probably take a year or more to accomplish.

Damaged Secondary
Damage to the Cerro Tololo Victor Blanco 4m f/8 Secondary. Image credit: CTIO
Last week the unthinkable happened at the Cerro Tololo Victor Blanco 4m Telescope in Chile. A secondary mirror was being removed from the telescope when the handling cart tipped over and injured two workers. Fortunately the injuries were not very serious. The secondary? It suffered severe damage, a 20cm crater in the front surface.

At Keck we had recently undertaken a full review of our optics handling procedures. Every step of the process, every piece of equipment was subject to scrutiny. The procedures reviewed by a committee of internal and external reviewers. The goal was to prevent just this sort of incident, to protect our invaluable glass.

Photos of the damaged CTIO secondary and descriptions of the incident are a powerful example of what can go wrong. Something that will be in the back of everyone’s mind next time we are moving a piece of big glass.