Jun 5, 2023
Spuds in space? Potato frying possibilities sans gravity subject of new research

Fry me up, Scotty. New research supported by the European Space Agency indicates that frying potatoes in space may be a feasible — and perhaps more palatable — option for astronauts.

Researchers from the University of Thessaloniki in Greece sought to determine if frying potatoes would work sans gravity. Without upward buoyancy, bubbles might stick to the surface of a potato, creating a layer of steam that could leave the tuber undercooked and undesirable, according to an article on ESA’s website.

New research supported by the European Space Agency indicates that frying potatoes in space may be a feasible — and perhaps more palatable — option for astronauts. Photo: File

“Ask any chef and they will confirm that the physics and chemistry behind food is a complex and fascinating subject that bubbles over to other science disciplines,” Thodoris Karapantsios, a professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and research team member, said in the article.

A carousel apparatus was designed for two ESA parabolic flight campaigns, which involve an aircraft flying in repeated arcs to recreate moments of weightlessness. A high-speed, high-resolution camera filmed the frying, capturing bubbles’ growth rate, size and distribution, escape velocity and speed and direction of travel. The experiment also measured the temperature of the oil and the temperature inside the potato.

The automated hardware maintained a constant pressure inside the frying chamber to avoid leaks, to prevent the oil from sloshing around and to use less energy.

The findings? Shortly after the potato was added to the oil in low-gravity conditions, vapor bubbles detached easily from the potato surface, much like happens on Earth.

In a scientific paper published in the Food Research International journal, study authors elaborated on the importance of the study.

“Despite the major progress in studying and designing systems for crop cultivation in microgravity conditions in the last years, there hasn’t been equal interest in food preparation processes and cooking,” the study said, citing reasons including current months-long stays in space that aren’t long enough to require more nutritional investigation beyond rehydrated food.

“This, however, will change drastically in long-term missions, e.g., to Moon and Mars,” the study said. “French fries are a very popular food commodity across many cultural backgrounds on earth and as such they may be appreciated by long-term space travelers of different origin.”

While more research is needed, early indications are that fried potatoes may be on the menu for astronauts, according to the article — a finding with ramifications beyond the plate.

“Apart from nutrition and comfort, studying the process of frying in space could also lead to advancements in various fields, from traditional boiling to producing hydrogen from solar energy in microgravity,” team member John Lioumbas said.

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