Frank Bartel (Frank_Bartel@QMAIL4.NBA.TRW.COM)
Wed, 23 Apr 1997 15:02:09 -0700
Mail*Link(r) SMTP LIGHTING CHARCOAL
LIGHTING CHARCOAL GRILLS or WHY ENGINEERS ARE THE WAY THEY ARE...
Our subject today is lighting charcoal grills. One of our favorite
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
On Gobel's Web page (the address is 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
vaporized," 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.
Engineers are like that.
(Too bad he didn't think of soaking the charcoal in LH2 before pouring
the LO2 on it!!)
Terry Howerton Sakima Group, Inc. SCOUTER Magazine Kansas City