Reality bites at Chin Chin Labs, Camden

Coffee grinder at Chin Chin Labs Camden

Nitro-brew? Not this week. Coffee and liquid nitrogen at Chin Chin Labs (a nitrogen dewar is on the table behind the coffee grinder).

It is true that Chin Chin Labs is not really a coffee-based café (although it does serve decently prepared, Monmouth roasted, coffee). Nonetheless, there is no question but that it has to be included as a cafe-physics review on Bean Thinking. Why? The answer is in the photo of the coffee grinder, though you may have to look carefully. You see, Chin Chin Labs is offering a different sort of café experience. Not coffee nor tea, but ice cream, indeed, Chin Chin Labs in Camden Lock advertises itself as the ‘future of ice-cream’ and the reason it does so is because here, all the ice cream is made with liquid nitrogen.

There are only 3-4 tables inside Chin Chin Labs which makes it more of a take-away bar than a sit down café. As you enter, a large dewar of liquid nitrogen is on your left, just behind the counter. Arranged behind this large dewar are a set of smaller dewars while on one of the ice cream preparation tables another (small) dewar sits with a pipe in it, ready for the nitrogen to be decanted out. If all these dewars are full, that is a lot of liquid nitrogen. The coffee is decent and prepared in the normal styles (espresso, Americano, cappuccino, latte), though this place is really not about the coffee (one of the staff expressed surprise that I’d ordered a coffee and not an ice cream). Next to the espresso machine were a set of glass beakers and glass containers as you would expect to find in a chemistry set, while the aprons worn by the staff had “Chin Chin Labs” written in a glittery, (futuristic or disco?), font.

Various dewars of nitrogen

Nitrogen, nitrogen everywhere…

There are many fun things that can be done with liquid nitrogen. From creating ice cream, through to shattering flowers and even to a possible solution for the energy storage problem (info here). Not to mention its important use as a coolant in all sorts of physics experiments and for biological storage. I have spent many hours decanting liquid nitrogen into buckets for basic experiments or into the first cooling stage of very strong magnets (such as are used in MRI machines).

However, at -196ºC, liquid nitrogen is not a liquid that can be treated flippantly. Although it can be fun, and handled correctly there is no problem, it can nonetheless be very dangerous. Which is why something else about Chin Chin Labs struck me quite hard. While there were glass beakers and containers that a cartoon may feature as part of a science ‘lab’, there was none of the equipment that you would actually expect to see in a real lab where liquid nitrogen is used. In our lab, oxygen monitors beep (annoyingly) every 60 seconds*, eye goggles and proper cryogenic-suitable gloves are stored in a highly visible position easily accessible to anyone in the lab. Risk assessments are prominently displayed so that everybody is aware of the risk of oxygen depletion (leading to suffocation) were the nitrogen dewars in the lab to fail and suddenly vent all that liquid nitrogen into nitrogen gas in the lab. These things are not fun, but are a necessary part of running a lab in which cryogenic liquids (including liquid nitrogen) are stored and used.

Ice cream at Chin Chin

The final result: vanilla nitrogen-ice-cream.

It is this contrast, between what is expected of a lab (glass beakers and complicated looking valves on the dewars) and what is in a lab (safety equipment and complicated looking valves on the dewars) that struck me. What do people, the public, café owners, think a lab looks like? What do they (you?) think a scientist looks like? Do we prefer indulging in our stereotyped ideas of a lab rather than think about the reality of life in a real science lab?

I am sure (or at least I hope) that the safety equipment, oxygen monitors etc. are present, but hidden under the counter, at Chin Chin Labs. It should always be possible to have fun with liquid nitrogen, whether in a lab or a café. And the ice cream is definitely worth trying (according to the person I visited Chin Chin Labs with). But, if you happen to pass by Camden Lock and try some nitrogen ice-cream, please do spend a minute to ask yourself, what you think a scientist, or a lab looks like. And do let me know what you think, I’d be interested to know.

Chin Chin Labs is at 49-50 Camden Lock Place, NW1 8AF

* In the event of the failure of a liquid nitrogen dewar, the oxygen in the room would be displaced. The resulting decrease in oxygen concentration can cause sleepiness, mental confusion or in the case of severe oxygen depletion, coma and death (more info here, opens as pdf). Oxygen monitors check the oxygen level in the room is at a safe level. The beep is annoying but tells us that the monitor still has battery and is checking the oxygen level in the room.

Joe’s espresso cafe bar, Victoria

radiant heat, heat loss, heat conduction, infra red, Joe's espresso cafe bar

The slightly ajar door at Joe’s espresso cafe

A few weeks ago I happened to be near Joe’s espresso café bar on the corner of Medway St. and Horseferry Road, with around twenty minutes to spare. Joe’s is an old-style independent café, very focused on their lunch menu and take away coffees. Nonetheless, there is a decent sized seating area in a room adjacent to the ‘bar’ where you can sit with your coffee and watch the world go by on Horseferry Road. It is always nice to come across a friendly café that allows you to sit quietly and people-watch. As I sat and watched the taxis pass by, I became aware of the fact that it had got quite cold. The people who had just left the cafe had left the door to the room slightly open; the cold was ‘getting in‘. Now I know, heat goes out, cold does not come in but sitting there in that café that is not how it felt. Then it struck me, rather than cause me to grumble, the slightly open door should remind me  of the experiments of Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786).

Scheele was a brilliant chemist but one who performed experiments that would make our university health and safety departments jump up and down spitting blood. Recognised for discovering oxygen in the air (Priestley discovered it a few years later but published first), manganese and chlorine, Scheele also investigated arsenic and cyanide based compounds. It is thought that some of these experiments (he described the taste of cyanide) contributed to his early death in May 1786 at the age of 43. Fortunately, none of this has a connection to Joe’s espresso café. What links Scheele with Joe’s, is Scheele’s discovery of ‘radiant heat’ as he was sitting in front of his stove one day.

Open fire, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Radiant heat, infra red, convection

Sitting in front of a fire we can observe several different ways that heat moves.

Scheele’s house was presumably very cold in winter. He describes how he could sit in front of his stove with the door slightly ajar and feel its heat directly and yet, as he exhaled, the water vapour in his breath condensed into a cloud in the air. The heat from the stove was evidently heating Scheele, but not the air between Scheele and the stove. He additionally noted that this heat travelled in straight lines, horizontally towards him, as if it were light and without producing the refraction of visible light associated with air movement above a hot stove. Nor was a candle flame, placed between Scheele and the stove, affected by the passage of the heat. Clearly this ‘horizontal’ heat was different from the convective heat above the stove. Scheele called this ‘horizontal form’ of heat, ‘radiant heat’.

A few years later, the astronomer and discoverer of Uranus, William Herschel (1738-1822) was investigating glass-filter materials so that he could better observe the Sun. Using a prism to separate white light into its familiar rainbow spectrum, Herschel measured the temperature of the various parts of the spectrum. Surprisingly, the temperature recorded by the thermometer increased as the thermometer was moved from the violet end to the red end of the spectrum and then kept on rising into the invisible region next to the red. We now recognise Herschel’s observation of infra-red light as responsible for the radiant heat seen by Scheele, though a few more experiments were required at the time before this was confirmed.

sunlight induced chemical reactions, milk

Often milk is now supplied in semi-opaque bottles. Why do you think this is?

Further work by William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) and, independently Ritter (1776-1810) & Beckmann not only confirmed Herschel’s infra-red/radiant heat observations but also showed that, at the other end of the spectrum was another invisible ‘light’ that produced chemical reactions. Indeed, milk is often sold in semi-opaque plastic containers because of the fact that the taste and nutritional content of the milk are affected by such sunlight induced chemical reactions.

So, it seems to me that, in addition to an interesting story with which to idle away 20 minutes in a café, this set of thoughts offers a variety of experiments that we could try at home. If we are out, we could try to discern the different ways that heat is transferred from one body to another (as Scheele). If we had a prism, we could perhaps repeat Herschel’s experiment very easily with a cheap (but sensitive) thermocouple and, if we were really ambitious hook it up to a Raspberry Pi so that we could map the temperature as a function of wavelength. Finally, we could investigate how light affects chemical reactions by seeing how milk degrades when stored in the dark, direct sunlight or under different wavelengths. If you do any of these experiments please let me know what you discover in the comments section below. In the meanwhile, take time to enjoy your coffee, perhaps noticing how the hot mug is warming your hands.

Books that you may like to read and that were helpful for this piece:

“From Watt to Clausius”, DSL Cardwell, Heinemann Education Books Ltd, 1971

“On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen” H McGee, Unwin Hyman Ltd 1986

Apologies to university H&S departments, you guys do a great job (mostly!) in trying to help to prevent us dying from our own experiments too prematurely.