MIT grads Lisa Burton and Nadia Cheng have developed a series of alcohol-fueled boats that cruise around cocktails
MICHELLE NICOLE PHOTOGRAPHY
BY JOSEPH FLAHERTY - Wired
Homework at MIT can be pretty intense—students are regularly tasked with building robots or helping NASA solve thorny problems with the space station, but grad student Lisa Burton was recently assigned a homework project that combined the emerging field of biomimicry with booze. Instead of wrestling with a problem set, she was tasked with designing cocktail garnishes that flit around martinis, propelled by minute differences in surface tension.
Her professor, John W. M. Bush conducts groundbreaking research on interfacial phenomena, including “hydrodynamic quantum analogues” and shares his findings with both scientific journals and gourmet kitchens. The Epicurean polymath attended a course at Harvard focused on the intersection of food and science, and there met the world famous chef José Andrés and realized that his works in advanced mathematics could lead to a breakthrough amuse-bouche.
His study of water-walking insects drew his attention to a tiny, semi-aquatic insect called Microvelia that releases a surfactant in its wake, resulting in a change in surface tension that propels it forward. Bush asked Burton to apply this principle to create a scientifically advanced party favor.
Fire Up the 3-D Printer
Burton and her colleague Nadia Cheng began prototyping miniature “boats” to prove the principle would work in bars as well as bogs. Their simple vessels were filled with alcohol, which seeps out of a slit on one side. The difference in surface tension creates a propulsion effect. “We did a ton of 3-D printing to optimize the geometry of the components to make them work,” says Cheng. “Like designing the slit in the back of the boat to enable slower ‘fuel’ leakage so that the boat can operate for longer periods.”
They discovered the shape of the boat, while important, was overpowered by the alcohol content of the fuel. Higher octane hooch helped the boats move faster, and top-shelf spirits let them reach top speeds of four inches per second.
Leveraging their fundamental understanding of buoyancy and drag, Cheng and Burton worked out the key mechanics—how much liquor the vodka-fueled vessels required, the optimal size of the gap that powered them. They were ultimately able to move on to aesthetic challenges, creating a fleet of boats and a little plastic duck. “We could make almost any shape work,” says Cheng. “The rubber ducky was just fun. I love miniatures.”
Inspired by Flowers
Pleased with the alcohol-powered arks, Bush assigned his star pupils another project—an elastocapilillary pipette inspired by flowers that close their petals to keep water out during a flood. He realized that the mechanism could also grab water, essentially creating a dainty dropper that could be uses as an avant-garde utensil by his molecular gastronomist colleagues. For a celebrity chef like Andrés who serves theatrical 30 course meals, this MIT innovation is an easy way to bring flair to a fancy dinner.
Cheng calls the process of fabricating the flower “capillary origami” and started prototyping petals made from silicone, which were then attached to 3-D printed stems. When submerged in a drink, the flower ‘blooms,’ but as it’s removed, the process of hydrostatic suction causes the quarter millimeter thick petals to close, capturing a tiny amount of liquid. When placed back into a liquid or in your mouth, the flower opens again, transferring the flavor.
An LED was added to the 3-D printed stem as a purely aesthetic flourish, but it has interesting practical applications. For example, it can light up only when the vessel is empty to alert waiters to freshen up a guest’s beverage.
Both projects resulted in top marks and some atypical rewards. “We are hoping for a free meal,” says Cheng. Cheng and Burton recently graduated, but the project lives on and chocolate versions of the boats are in development in a partnership between Andrés and the Mars candy company. Still, Cheng and Burton hold out hope that more durable versions of their designs will hit the market. “It would be a shame to eat them,” Cheng says. “I’d like the design to stick around rather than be eaten and digested.”