LIGHTING CHARCOAL GRILLS
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 retrievers. On Gobel's Web page 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, 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."
For the engineers among us who understand that the obvious is not always the solution, and that the facts, no matter how implausible, are still the facts …
A complaint was received by the Pontiac Division of General Motors:
"This is the second time I have written you, and I don't blame you for not answering me, because I kind of sounded crazy, but it is a fact that we have a tradition in our family of ice cream for dessert after dinner each night. But the kind of ice cream varies so, every night, after we've eaten, the whole family votes on which kind of ice cream we should have and I drive down to the store to get it. It's also a fact that I recently purchased a new Pontiac and since then my trips to the store have created a problem. You see, every time I buy vanilla ice cream, when I start back from the store my car won't start. If I get any other kind of ice cream, the car starts just fine. I want you to know I'm serious about this question, no matter how silly it sounds: 'What is there about a Pontiac that makes it not start when I get vanilla ice cream, and easy to start whenever I get any other kind?'"
The Pontiac President was understandably skeptical about the letter, but sent an engineer to check it out anyway. The latter was surprised to be greeted by a successful, obviously well-educated man in a fine neighborhood. He had arranged to meet the man just after dinner time, so the two hopped into the car and drove to the ice cream store. It was vanilla ice cream that night and, sure enough, after they came back to the car, it wouldn't start.
The engineer returned for three more nights. The first night, the man got chocolate. The car started. The second night, he got strawberry. The car started. The third night he ordered vanilla. The car failed to start.
Now the engineer, being a logical man, refused to believe that this man's car was allergic to vanilla ice cream. He arranged, therefore, to continue his visits for as long as it took to solve the problem.
And toward this end he began to take notes: he jotted down all sorts of data, time of day, type of gas used, time to drive back and forth, etc.
In a short time, he had a clue: the man took less time to buy vanilla than any other flavor. Why? The answer was in the layout of the store. Vanilla, being the most popular flavor, was in a separate case at the front of the store for quick pickup. All the other flavors were kept in the back of the store at a different counter where it took considerably longer to find the flavor and get checked out.
Now the question for the engineer was why the car wouldn't start when it took less time. Once time became the problem-not the vanilla ice cream-the engineer quickly came up with the answer: vapor lock. It was happening every night, but the extra time taken to get the other flavors allowed the engine to cool down sufficiently to start. When the man got vanilla, the engine was still too hot for the vapor lock to dissipate.
Moral of the story: even insane-looking problems are sometimes real.