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Engineering the BBQ

Our subject today is lighting charcoal grills. One of our favourite charcoal grill lighters is a guy named George Goble (really!!), a computer person in the Purdue University engineering department. Each year, Goble and a bunch of other engineers hold a picnic in West Lafayette, Indiana, at which they cook hamburgers on a big grill. Being engineers, they began looking for practical ways to speed up the charcoal lighting process.

'We started by blowing the charcoal with a hair dryer,' Goble told me in a telephone interview. 'Then we figured out that it would light faster if we used a vacuum cleaner.'

If you know anything about (1) engineers and (2) guys in general, you know what happened: The purpose of the charcoal lighting shifted from cooking hamburgers to seeing how fast they could light the charcoal.

From the vacuum cleaner, they escalated to using a propane torch, then an acetylene torch. Then Goble started using compressed pure oxygen, which caused the charcoal to burn much faster, because as you recall from chemistry class, fire is essentially the rapid combination of oxygen with a reducing agent (the charcoal). We discovered that a long time ago, somewhere in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (or something along those lines).

By this point, Goble was getting pretty good times. But in the world of competitive charcoal lighting, 'pretty good' does not cut the mustard. Thus, Goble hit upon the idea of using - get ready - liquid oxygen.

This is the form of oxygen used in rocket engines; it's 295 degrees below zero and 600 times as dense as regular oxygen. In terms of releasing energy, pouring liquid oxygen on charcoal is the equivalent of throwing a live squirrel into a room containing 50 million Labrador retrievers.

On Goble's World Wide Web page (http://ghg.ecn.purdue.edu/), you can see actual photographs and a video of Goble using a bucket attached to a 10 foot long wooden handle to dump 3 gallons of liquid oxygen (not sold in stores) onto a grill containing 60 pounds of charcoal and a lit cigarette for ignition.

What follows is the most impressive charcoal lighting I have ever seen, featuring a large fireball that according to Goble, reached 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The charcoal was ready for cooking in - this has to be a world record - 3 seconds. There's also a photo of what happened when Goble used the same technique on a flimsy $2.88 discount store grill. All that's left is a circle of charcoal with a few shreds of metal in it. 'Basically, the grill evaporated,' said Goble. 'We were thinking of returning it to the store for a refund.'

Looking at Goble's video and photos, I became, as an American, all choked up with gratitude at the fact that I do not live anywhere near the engineers' picnic site. But also, I was proud of my country for producing guys who can be ready to barbecue in less time than it takes for guys in less advanced nations, such as France, to spit.

Will the 3-second barrier ever be broken? Will engineers come up with a new, more powerful charcoal lighting technology? It's something for all of us to ponder this summer as we sit outside, chewing our hamburgers, every now and then glancing in the direction of West Lafayette Indiana, looking for a mushroom cloud.
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