General Observations

Coffee (beans) in the blood?

Brazil nut effect
A green bean ‘floating’ in coffee grounds. When you pour your beans into your grinder, do they behave like a liquid flow or do they have their own type of ‘granular’ flow?

When you first learn about liquids, solids and gases, you may learn about the fact that a solid keeps its shape whereas a liquid flows. A solid is rigid and can be moved as one block whereas a liquid will spread and change shape. Solids can be stacked up like bricks though this is not true of liquids.

A slightly unfair question is then put to you. What about sand? (Or, in the context of this website, what about coffee beans?). A pile of beans will initially stack but as the pile builds, avalanches will occur to prevent the tower being too vertical. When you pour your beans into your grinder hopper, the beans will level out, in much the same way as the eventual coffee will in the cup. Do the collection of coffee beans move more as if they are a liquid or a solid?

Clearly to some extent the question is wrong, the beans represent their own class of structure but perhaps a better way of asking the question would be, how do a collection of coffee beans flow? It is a question with consequences beyond the coffee hopper. From pharmaceuticals to civil engineering projects and beyond, understanding how granular materials flow is an important topic.

Beans on a plate. The aspect ratio of the coffee bean is similar to that of the particles used in a new study to analyse granular flow.

And yet it has apparently been difficult to analyse this problem owing to the difficulty in tracking individual coffee beans (tablets or particles of cement) as they are pushed in one direction or another. A start was made nearly 20 years ago when a team at the University of Chicago used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI, yes, the same MRI as you get in hospitals) to image individual mustard and poppy seeds as they flowed between two cylinders. The imaging allowed researchers to track the position and velocity and packing density of the seeds as they moved around the cylinders. Then, last year a new study used X-ray tomography to watch individual particles in a rectangular box as they were subjected to being pushed at various pressures in different directions. This, more recent study used plastic ellipses with a minor axis of 6.35mm and an aspect ratio of 1.5. Sadly, not real coffee beans but a fairly large plastic equivalent. While the aspect ratio will of course vary from varietal to varietal and even bean to bean, the coffee beans in my hopper at the moment have an aspect ratio of 1.3 (and a minor axis of 4.5mm) which makes them pretty close to the plastic used in the study.

Brew&Bread, latte art Sun, KL latte art
The structures in milk allow the milk to be ‘frothed’ and so enable latte art. They also make milk an example of a complex fluid.

By tracking each bean, the study discovered that such granular collections moved as if they were “complex fluids”. Which is all very well but does makes you wonder, what is a complex fluid? Is coffee a complex fluid?

Does the definition help? The definition on the Physics (APS) website says that: complex fluids “can be considered homogeneous at the macroscopic (or bulk) scale, but are disordered at the “microscopic” scale, and possess structure at an intermediate scale.”. What does that mean? Well, it seems to mean that complex fluids contain things that are larger than the molecules that make up the liquid and so affect how the fluid flows. Milk has long chains of proteins and fats (which give it the foam like qualities when it is frothed in a cappuccino) and so is a complex fluid. Chocolate and blood are other complex fluids as are emulsions and gels. Pure water would not be a complex fluid and my guess is that coffee (which contains water molecules and various molecules associated with the coffee itself) is also not a complex fluid. Were you to have a latte or a cortado though, the milk would transform your coffee into a complex fluid. Although I much prefer to keep my coffee simple, it would seem that there is more to the saying “you have coffee in your blood” than it would at first appear, particularly as regards the coffee beans. It may be time for some experimental tests of coffee bean (and coffee or latte liquid) flow….

cafe with good nut knowledge Coffee review General Observations Science history

Thinking of foraging at Damson & Co

Damson and Co, like its wild counterpart, easy to miss
Damson & Co on Brewer St.

At approximately this time of year, it is possible to start foraging for damsons in the UK countryside. These small plums make lovely cakes and muffins and, very importantly, great damson gin. A bit like sloe gin but, in my opinion, better. All this is a digression. When I found out about a cafe called Damson & Co I had to try it, purely for the name which brings back fond memories of country walks and gin shared with friends. However, even armed with its address and location on a map I missed it! Damson & Co is very inconspicuous in the way that it is situated on the street. Just as with its wild counterpart, it is easy to walk past without noticing that it’s there but once you’ve seen it, it is obvious, a location that you mark down in order to return to it again and again.

Inside, lavender decorated the table tops in the small but extremely friendly cafe. We enjoyed an Americano, an iced latte and a lovely chocolate brownie that had been warmed almost to the point of melting. They were also extremely helpful when I asked the dreaded “does it contain nuts?” question, checking the ingredients, informing me of the (obligatory) “it may have had contact with a nut at some point in its manufacture” line, but ultimately helping me to choose what was a great nut-free cake. Complementary water was automatically put onto the table and so we had, for the brief moment before I ate the cake, a range of ‘phases of matter’ on the table. Water in the forms of liquid in the bottle, solid ice and steam rising up from the coffee and a brilliantly gooey, viscous chocolate cake somewhere between liquid and solid. At that point it was quite clear what the physics bit of this cafe-physics review would have to be: phases of matter and phase changes.

interior of Damson & Co
Lavender in a jar with sugar in the window of Damson & Co

As ice melts into water, or evaporates to form steam, it undergoes many changes in its properties: Ice is of course solid; liquid water conducts heat much readily more than steam (more on this another day). Another property that changes is the heat capacity of the ice/water/steam. The heat capacity is the amount of energy that it takes to heat a substance by one degree in temperature. At the temperature that the substance changes, say between a liquid and a solid, there will frequently be a spike in a plot of “heat capacity” vs. temperature. This tells us that, as the solid changes to a liquid (or vice versa) the response of the material to being heated changes. Physicists often measure the heat capacity of substances to see if any phase changes occur. A phase change does not necessarily mean that the substance goes from liquid to solid or to gas. A substance will be said to undergo a phase change if it becomes ferromagnetic (like iron at room temperature) or if it becomes superconducting (like aluminium at approximately -272C). Back in the 1920s it was the investigation of the heat capacity of liquid helium that helped to suggest that there was a new form of matter lurking at extremely low temperatures.

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (a great physicist and apparently a very nice man) had managed to liquify helium gas in 1908. Helium gas becomes a liquid below -269C. By the 1920s it was clear that something very strange happened to liquid helium if you cooled it even more, to temperatures below -271C. The behaviour of the heat capacity spiked indicating that the helium was undergoing another phase change, but to all appearances it was still a liquid. There was no indication that the helium was solidifying, what could it be? More experiments revealed that below -271C the helium liquid started to behave very strangely indeed. It climbed up the walls of its container ‘by itself’ and it managed to leak through minuscule cracks in the glass containers that it was kept in (for a video click here). Cracks that could not be detected before the ultra-cold helium started to leak through them. It took until 1937/38 before this new state of matter was named and it is still not clear that we understand it.

There is so much more to the phases of matter than meets the eye while watching ice melt in a glass of water on a hot summer’s day.

Damson & Co can be found at 21 Brewer St. London