People who live above fast-food restaurants may soon have astronauts to thank for solving the perennial problem of smelly french-fry oil.
A new method developed by German researchers and tested on the International Space Station (ISS) is proving effective at ridding range hoods of the malodorous molecules produced in the deep-frying process.
Typically these molecules are captured by expensive commercial range hoods that use ozone-producing chemicals that can be hazardous to our health.
This new process uses cold plasma to eradicate the smelly molecules, according to a release from the European Space Agency (ESA), which funded research behind the innovation.
- NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson to become oldest woman in space
- International Space Station: 15 facts marking 15 years
Plasma is usually a hot, electrically-charged gas, but the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany has pioneered a way of creating cold plasmas at room temperature.
These are safe to touch, making them attractive for a variety of uses, including the restaurant and fast-food industries.
The space connection
Russian astronauts on the space station have been testing cold plasmas since 2001.
Professor Gregor Morfill and his team headed the first experiment aboard the ISS. They took advantage of weightlessness to study complex plasmas. That research — along with a grant from the ESA — provided the impetus to find practical uses for cold plasma back on Earth.
Since 2013, Morfill has also been the CEO of a company called Terraplasma. It has already applied cold plasma technology to water treatment, as well as to medical and hygiene problems.
Morfill introduced the plasma technology to Blümchen, a German manufacturer of deep-fat fryers now working to incorporate it into industrial cooking hoods.
How it works
The system generates cold plasma by sparking a glowing electrical discharge in the air between a short rod electrode sitting in the middle of a cylindrical electrode. A magnetic field is then used to move this discharge rapidly, spreading it out to produce a plasma disc. Foul air from the deep-frying process is then passed through the disc to be cleaned.
Alejandro Marangoni, a University of Guelph professor and Canada research chair in food science, says the new technology could prove useful in eliminating a waste product that’s been difficult to cope with so far.
“Those molecules created in the frying operation are quite sticky — they stick to your clothes, they stick to your hair, they’re very fatty,” Marangoni told CBC news. “This would break them down into smaller molecules that wouldn’t have the smell and wouldn’t bind to everything.”
A boon for safety
In addition to the nuisance of coping with the smells, this method would also improve the safety of people who work with deep fryers at restaurants, fast-food outlets and food factories, he said.
‘Who would have imagined that you can use a cold plasma device to break down smells from deep fryers? Nobody would have come up with that before.’
– Alejandro Marangoni, food scientist
“Many of the breakdown products of those compounds created during frying operations can be quite toxic,” said Marangoni. “Particularly for people who are working in front of their fryers; it’s a great thing for the safety of them.”
This news also serves as a reminder about why it’s worthwhile to keep funding expensive space research for the unexpected leaps forward it provides, he said.
“Who would have imagined that you can use a cold plasma device to break down smells from deep fryers? Nobody would have come up with that before.”