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Curating quirky science since 1943
Popcorn’s perfect pores
he smell of burning popcorn usually heralds
dismay, not discovery. But in an engineering lab in Yangzhou, China, that distinctive
odor accompanied the creation of a new,
carbon-based material that can boost the performance of energy-storing supercapacitors.
Jianhua Hou, a researcher at Yangzhou University,
and his colleagues were searching for a “green,” or
biomass, source of material to improve supercapacitor capacity. One day while munching on popcorn
with his daughter, Hou wondered what the microscopic structure of his snack looked like.
Energy storage materials’ microscopic structure
heavily influences how effective they are. Microscopic
pores increase the specific surface area and help channel ion movement, but synthesizing these kinds of
materials is challenging. As Hou and his colleagues report in a recent study, popcorn-derived carbon flakes
have a honeycomb structure and the highest energy
density of any reported biomass-derived carbon material (ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2017, DOI: 10.1021/
acsami.7b07746).
Another bonus is that the material is cheap and
easy to generate: Microwave puffed popcorn for eight
minutes and activate it with potassium hydroxide. For
the popping phase, “we suggest using a fume hood,”
Hou tells Newscripts, as the smell of burnt popcorn
lingered in the lab for more than an hour.
T
Mathematical
cookie dunking
f you prefer baked snacks to puffed, the
Newscripts gang has you covered, too. After
spotting an article published earlier this year by
members of Utah State University’s Splash Lab,
we dug into the science
behind crafting the perfectly dunked cookie.
Writing in the Utah
Statesman, the scientists
I
Cookie crumbling: An old
equation reveals the best
length of time to dunk your
cookies (between two and
five seconds).
40
C&EN | CEN.ACS.ORG | OCTOBER 23, 2017
An age-old snack
s long as the Newscripts team is reflecting on the 1920s, let’s look even further
back at a timeless snack. Earlier this year,
conservators from the New Zealand-based
Antarctic Heritage Trust discovered a 106-year-old
fruitcake among nearly 1,500 artifacts collected in
Antarctica.
The fruitcake had been stored in huts used by ex-
A
An ageless snack: This fruitcake is thought to be
from an Antarctic exploration from 1910 and 1913.
plorers in the Terra Nova expedition between 1910
and 1913. Despite its age, the fruitcake, wrapped in paper and stored in a very rusty tin, was well preserved
by the extreme cold. “There was a very, very slight
rancid butter smell to it,” said Lizzie Meek, program
manager of artifacts, in a statement. “But other than
that, the cake looked and smelled edible!”
Though the Newscripts team engaged in friendly
debate about whether fruitcake of any age can be
considered edible, we agree that Maria Godoy, writing
for NPR’s food blog The Salt, puts it best: “When life
is stripped down to man versus the most brutal elements, bring plenty of snacks.”
Emma Hiolski wrote this week’s column. Please send
comments and suggestions to [email protected]
C R E D I T: S H UT T E RSTO CK ( MI L K & CO O KI ES , B UR N T P O P COR N ) ; A N TA RCT I C H E R I TAG E T RU ST (CAK E )
Newscripts
describe snack-worthy experiments determining how
fast Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Nutter Butter, and graham
crackers absorbed milk and how long it took the soggy
cookies to crumble.
The cookies absorbed 80% of the total liquid possible in under two seconds, and 99% in five seconds,
leading the researchers to conclude, “Any dunk under
five seconds should be safe from a premature breakoff.”
This gastronomic endeavor expands prior work
done by Len Fisher, a physicist, author, and Ig Nobel
laureate, who applied mathematics to the art of biscuit and pastry dunking. It all boils down to capillary
action as liquid is wicked into the cookie’s pores. In a
1999 Nature commentary, Fisher describes his use of
the Washburn equation—“derived in 1921 to describe
capillary flow in porous materials”—to determine
the optimal dunking time for a biscuit in coffee or tea
(DOI: 10.1038/17203).
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