Finding a bug in your drink is an unpleasant surprise, but researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a fanciful cocktail accessory based on the mechanics of water bugs—and another less ironically modeled after the workings of a delicate water lily. In partnership with José Andrés, a renowned chef who lectures on the science of cooking at Harvard University, applied mathematics professor John Bush designed two cocktail accessories—a pipette modeled after a water lily, which serves to pick up drops of cocktails meant to cleanse the palate and drop them on the diner’s tongue, and an edible “boat” that circles around the surface of alcoholic drinks. Both produced on 3D printers, allowing the researchers to modify their prototypes rapidly, the objects were inspired by Bush’s desire to combine mathematics and culinary art. After attending one of Andrés Harvard lectures, Bush approached him suggesting they collaborate on edible designs that relied on mathematical properties. “Much of my research concerns surface tension,” Bush says, “which is responsible for a number of interesting effects that arise in the kitchen—or the bar.” The cocktail boat is filled with an alcohol of a higher proof than the drink it floats in, which it then releases steadily through a notch at one end. This creates a difference in surface tension, propelling the boat forward in a phenomenon called the Marangoni effect. The design, described in a paper published in the October issue of Bioinspiration & Biometrics, is inspired by a mechanism found in nature: Many aquatic insects rely on Marangoni propulsion, which they create by releasing chemicals that produce a gradient in surface tension. When dropped onto a watery surface, the bugs use this mechanism to skitter safely back to shore. Bush’s team optimized the design of the boats for speed and fuel efficiency—in other words, the amount of time they could move before running out of alcohol, or about two minutes. You can see them in action here. The floral pipettes, which Bush says are intended to deliver dainty drops of liquid to the tongue—concoctions, according to the paper, that Andrés will develop specially to refresh diners’ palettes during multi-course meals—look like upside-down flowers. When the flowers are dipped into liquid and pulled back out, their petals fold shut and hold some of the liquid inside. The design, Bush says, is “an inversion of the design of floating flowers that, when exposed to floods, wrap up in order to protect genetic material.” Biomimicry is nothing new—Velcro, Scotch tape and the airplane are all examples of designs borrowed from nature—but creating the cocktail accessories was a unique challenge. “Typically in the lab,” Bush says, “function is everything, but given our ultimate goal, aesthetic appeal was also a consideration.” As the researchers stated in their paper, they strove for “the mimicry not only of nature’s function, but of her elegance.” Now the designs are in the hands of Andrés’ management company, ThinkFoodGroup. “The chefs are taking it a step further,” Bush says, “The designs are not to be only functional and aesthetically pleasing, but edible.” The hope is that they’ll soon make a debut at Minibar, Andrés’ restaurant in Washington, DC. And in the meantime, Bush says he’s always on the lookout for more natural mechanisms he can replicate. Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.
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