scientific method

Vacuum fillers

inverted Aeropress and coffee stain
The Aeropress on top of a mug, with a coffee spill. Clearly a badly performed inversion method brew.

The Aeropress is a lovely way to make a fairly quick cup of great coffee. Part filter, part immersion, it is a coffee brewer designed by an engineer. There are many ways to make coffee with an Aeropress but common to all is the ‘press’ towards the end where the plunger is pressed down onto the coffee pushing the liquid through the filter paper and into the mug. As you remove the Aeropress at the end, it can drip leading to coffee stains on the work surface. However there is a trick to prevent this. While watching James Hoffmann videos to improve my Aeropress technique, he mentioned that after pressing, he pulls the plunger back up a bit and this helps to prevent dripping. Genius. You can see his recommended Aeropress technique here.

The trick presumably works because the plunger has a rubber (or silicone) seal into the Aeropress base. This ensures that when you pull back the piston, there will be a slight vacuum created just behind the filter paper. As the air flows back into the space behind the filter it will primarily do so via the filter-end of the Aeropress (not the seal) and so any drips that were forming will be pushed back into the brewer. Rubber seals are not fantastically air-tight and will let air in eventually but for the few seconds that you need to take the Aeropress off of the mug and replace it upside down on the work surface this level of vacuum is sufficient.

So how air tight is a rubber seal? The seal in the Aeropress will not be very air tight at all. The seal created is purely through the rubber piston being pushed into the Aeropress body. However purpose-built rubber o-rings can support fairly respectable vacuums. Normal air pressure is 1 Bar or 1000 mBar. Using rubber o-rings that are clamped into place between separate parts of a vacuum chamber, it is perfectly possible to achieve vacuum levels of around 0.01 mBar**. For higher vacuum levels (or equivalently lower pressures), you would need to use a metal seal such as copper. As copper is slightly malleable, if you use it as a join between two parts of a vacuum chamber and clamp it together, you can create a very good (air-tight) seal. In this way you could pump the vacuum chamber to pressures of 10^-8 mBar or even lower. You would need this level of vacuum to make some of the components that are contained in your mobile phone or laptop, possibly even some of the components in the measuring scales you use to weigh the coffee. You would not need that sort of vacuum to make coffee itself.

How to brew a perfect cup? Would a bit of physics help with the clean-up?

The Aeropress is a fairly recent invention and yet similar problems, and solutions to Hoffmann’s trick would have been noticed in the past. And yet there is a common saying that “nature abhors a vacuum”, originally attributed to Aristotle. If we think that the explanation for the effect above seems sensible, how do we reconcile these two ideas? Descartes noted a similar problem in a wine keg. It is like the lid of a take-away coffee cup: for wine (or coffee) to flow out of a hole in a container, another hole is needed. Did the extra hole allow the wine to avoid the vacuum? Instead, Descartes explained it differently:

“When the wine in a cask does not flow from the bottom opening because the top is completely closed, it is improper to say, as they ordinarily do, that this takes place through ‘fear of a vacuum’. We are well aware that the wine has no mind to fear anything; and even if it did, I do not know for what reason it could be apprehensive of this vacuum…”*

The idea was that everything including space was absolutely filled with matter. So the extra hole in the wine keg allowed this extra matter to flow into the keg and the wine to flow out; if the Aeropress plunger is pulled back, matter would immediately flow back into the space created. The drops would be pushed back into the Aeropress and it would not drip. A very similar mechanism to the reason suggested for the behaviour above. It perhaps could cause us to question, what evidence do we have from our own daily lives about the existence of vacuums? How could we personally prove that they exist even as we rely on their existence for our consumer electronics?

Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’ An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768 Oil on canvas, 183 × 244 cm Presented by Edward Tyrrell, 1863 NG725 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG725

There is a famous painting from the eighteenth century that demonstrates the creation of a vacuum in a home-setting. In “An experiment on a bird in the air pump” (pictured), Joseph Wright depicts the moment that air is taken out of a vacuum chamber containing a bird. The bird collapses in the vacuum as the audience looks on. We know the vacuum exists because the bird no longer has air to breathe. At the moment that we encounter the picture the scientist demonstrating could either let air back into the chamber and allow the bird to live or continue reducing the air pressure at which point the bird will die. What will he choose? The audience display a variety of reactions from the indifference of the couple on the left to the impotent horror of the girls on the right. Only two of the audience seem to be paying attention, even the experimentalist appears to be performing, and not participating in, the experiment. It could be argued that the painting speaks to us of the scientific method and the idea of being detached, outside of and observing the natural world. Imagining ourselves “independent observers” of a situation we are participating in. We are all detached and looking on, both controlling the life of the bird as well as claiming indifference to its fate.

As this was written, COP26 was continuing in Glasgow. We are at a specific point in time, just as with the “experiment on a bird”. Are we going to continue as we are or will we intervene and allow life to recover? Do we tell ourselves that we are indifferent observers or are we co-inhabitants of a common home? These are perhaps not considerations for a website about the physics of coffee. They may be considerations to have while enjoying, or certainly contemplating, a coffee. Whether or not you use a trick from vacuum science to help you clear up.

*Descartes, “The World”, ~1632

**Basic Vacuum Technology, 2nd Ed. Chambers, Fitch and Halliday, Institute of Physics publishing, 1998