Engineering solutions for kitchen challenges

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)
Crafty engineering can help solve many problems, including those we face in our own kitchens. At EPFL’s Institute of Mechanical Engineering, students from three laboratories tackled some of the most common kitchen challenges as part of the first Kitchen-Inspired Engineering contest.

Cooking the perfect poached egg is a lot trickier than it looks. That’s why it was selected as one of the challenges that students tackled in the first edition of the Kitchen-Inspired Engineering contest. "The idea behind this engineering challenge was to give Bachelor’s students experience working on an entire project, from developing a design and running simulations to performing tests and building a prototype," says John Kolinski, head of EPFL’s Engineering Mechanics of Soft Interfaces (EMSI) laboratory. "Each of the three teams participating in the contest decided which kitchen problem it wanted to solve and came up with its own ideas."

The teams, which consisted of four to five students each, met once a week during the spring semester. They worked closely with their professors and postdoc researchers to develop functional designs that address the specific problem they selected. One team came up with a system for pouring the perfect beer, while another created a device that makes the perfect poached egg. "Those students had to figure out how to deal with eggs of different ages and how to keep the water clean so that the device could be used over and over again. It was impressive to see how effectively the students worked together," says Kolinski.

Food preparation is an important part of our everyday lives, which is what prompted four EPFL professors - Kolinski, Tobias Schneider ( Emergent Complexity in Physical Systems Laboratory ), Pedro Reis ( Flexible Structures Laboratory ) and Selman Sakar ( Micro BioRobotic Systems Laboratory ) to set up the contest. "We sat down and discussed how we could explore the idea of kitchen-based engineering in a fun, engaging way. It’s a field with tangible applications and could be a vector for bringing food-science teaching and research onto our campus, in association with our talented, smart, ambitious and curious undergraduate students," says Kolinski.

Encouraged by the success of this first Kitchen-Inspired Engineering contest, the four professors plan to continue it in the coming years. They hope to create more opportunities for students from different EPFL schools to work with each other and with students from other institutions; one student team taking part in the competition has already contacted the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL). Such joint projects allow students to learn from each other’s knowledge and experience.

From education to innovation

In addition to providing a learning opportunity, the contest can also give rise to marketable innovations. "One of the ideas presented at the competition turned out to be so promising that the team is now looking into filing a patent for it," says Kolinski.

EPFL’s Integrative Food and Nutrition Center (IFNC) brings university researchers together with food industry professionals. "The Center’s wide range of contacts can provide a solid basis for students to seek out interesting problems and find solutions that make a real impact," says Kolinski. The IFNC’s objectives are in line with the goals of the Kitchen-Inspired Engineering contest, paving the way to many more food-science projects and research initiatives on the EPFL campus.

The first step is to make a clean crack in the eggshell. One of the student teams in the Kitchen-Inspired Engineering contest developed a system for doing this by using a compression machine and a razor blade to create a fissure in the eggshell, which is then propagated to crack open the egg.

As eggs get older, the protein in their whites decomposes and becomes watery. That’s what creates flakes in the cooking water when poaching an egg. The students’ system therefore includes a dynamic filtering system to prevent flakes from entering the cooking water so that the device can be used again. The system consists of a slotted ramp that eggs can be slid onto so as to eliminate any residue and then be dropped gently in the water.

The final step is to keep the cooking water at the generally recommended 80°C. And there you have the perfect poached egg!