Tag Archive for: engineering

Space Meals & Mushroom Batteries


Ever wondered about the foods that get sent into space? This nifty infographic covers everything from space food history, preservation, packaging and labeling, and fun facts such as why wine can’t go into space and “vomit comet”. Back on Earth, researchers at UC Riverside Bourns College of Engineering used portabello mushrooms to create a new type of lithium-ion battery anode. This new battery is believed to stop cell phone batteries from degrading over time.
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Pizza Nanophysics & The Bacon Genome


As we saw earlier this week, scientific progress can collide with the food world in some truly unexpected ways. Continuing this theme, pizza tossing helps nanophysicists design tiny motors, while pig genome research holds the key to tastier bacon. Read more

Sky-High Spuds

In the not-so-distant future, surfing the web at 35,000 feet will be just as reliable as going online at your favorite coffee shop. Who do we thank for this aeronautical innovation? Teams of engineers have been leading the charge to bring us quality in-flight internet, but there’s another WiFi hero you probably didn’t expect… potatoes!

Photo credit: Boeing

Photo credit: Boeing

Providing strong and consistent WiFi throughout a crowded airplane cabin presents an interesting challenge. Because the human body can interfere with WiFi signals, a cabin full of passengers can wreak havoc on an otherwise stable internet connection. But running rigorous WiFi tests on a full, airborne flight is impractical. And holding passengers hostage for days in a grounded airplane cabin is just unthinkable.

Enter the potato. Potatoes and humans have comparable dielectric properties, meaning that they similarly interact (and interfere) with WiFi signals. Engineers at Boeing used this to their advantage, creating a new way to test the quality of airline WiFi sans humans. The aptly named “project SPUDS” (Synthetic Personnel Using Dielectric Substitution) used 20,000 pounds of potatoes to quickly optimize the effectiveness and safety of WiFi signals aboard decommissioned airplanes.

When this breakthrough hit newsstands back in 2012, Boeing made it clear that potatoes weren’t in their original plan. In reality, SPUDS serendipitously took off when the research team stumbled across a paper from the Journal of Food Science describing the dielectric properties of 15 fruits and vegetables.

It turns out that food scientists have been studying the dielectric properties of fruits and vegetables for quite some time, as these properties determine how foods behave in a microwave oven. Dielectric properties describe how materials interact with electromagnetic waves, including those emitted by microwave ovens. In particular, dielectric properties determine how much energy a food can absorb in a microwave oven and how far into the food the microwaves will penetrate. Such information is especially useful to industrial food processors who often use microwaves to cook, pasteurize, dry, or preserve various food products.

WiFi signals are typically transmitted at a frequency (2.40 GHz) that is remarkably close to the frequency produced by microwave ovens (2.45 GHz). Thanks to the work of food science researchers, Boeing engineers could confidently choose the potato as their ideal human stand-in.

Thinking about this story, it’s hard not to marvel at the interconnectedness of science. Those food scientists probably never imagined that their work would eventually help improve internet access. And those Boeing engineers must have been pretty surprised to find themselves perusing the latest in food science research. It can be difficult to predict where our ongoing pursuit of knowledge will lead us, but one thing is clear—when it comes to expanding our view of science and making new connections, the sky’s the limit.

Liz Roth-JohnsonAbout the author: Liz Roth-Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular Biology at UCLA. If she’s not in the lab, you can usually find her experimenting in the kitchen.

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Brownie Hacks & Cookie Engineering


Get ready for the holidays! Check out these helpful guides to engineering your perfect brownies and cookies. Read more

The Science of Cookies

How would you describe your perfect chocolate chip cookie? Thin and chewy? Ultra-crispy? Thick and cakey? Whatever your preference, knowing how to manipulate the ingredients in a basic cookie recipe is the first step toward chocolate chip cookie bliss. At last week’s “Science of Cookies” student event, graduate student Kendra Nyberg showed us how to achieve two very different cookie textures by riffing off of the classic Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe.


Cookies wait to be tasted (left) while Kendra explains how gluten makes cookies chewy (right)


Thin, chewy cookies (left) and thick, soft cookies (right)

Thin, Chewy Cookies from Smitten Kitchen
These cookies are all about moisture. A wetter cookie dough spreads more during baking, creating a much thinner cookie. Extra moisture also promotes gluten development in the cookie dough, creating a slightly denser, chewier cookie. This recipe from Smitten Kitchen maximizes moisture content by using melted butter, less flour, less egg white (which can dry out cookies), and a higher brown-to-white sugar ratio (brown sugar can help retain moisture) than the classic Toll House Recipe.


Thick, Soft Cookies from My Baking Addiction
Where the previous cookies craved moisture, this recipe from My Baking Addiction removes extra moisture to create thicker, less chewy cookies. Increasing the flour content and using extra cold butter creates a drier dough that spreads less easily in the oven; adding baking powder to the dough lends extra fluffing power. The reduced moisture in this dough also limits gluten formation for a slightly softer (less chewy) cookie.


Of course, this is barely the tip of the cookie engineering iceberg. There are so many ways to tweak a cookie recipe to achieve different textures. In addition to this brief introduction, the internet is full of great resources for cookie hacking. This particularly handy guide from Handle the Heat clearly show some of the ingredient manipulations described above. If you end up experimenting with your favorite cookie recipes, be sure to tell us about it in the comments below!

Liz Roth-JohnsonAbout the author: Liz Roth-Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular Biology at UCLA. If she’s not in the lab, you can usually find her experimenting in the kitchen.

Read more by Liz Roth-Johnson

Tropical Fruit Inspires Innovative Research

Two weeks from now, renowned Brazilian chef Alex Atala will be joining Science & Food for the first 2013 public lecture at UCLA. Chef Atala has generated a lot of buzz in the food world by discovering and classifying new ingredients from the Amazon basin. But Atala isn’t the only one looking to the South American rain forest for inspiration. By studying the fruit of the tropical plant Margaritaria nobilis (commonly known as the bastard hogberry), a team of researchers led by Dr. Mathias Kolle has created an amazing new material that changes color as it stretches. Read more