How (and why) to unboil an egg
Have you ever boiled an egg and wished you hadn’t? It’s the kind of thing that can ruin your day.
Thankfully, science is here to help. All you need is a handy invention called the Vortex Fluidic Device (VFD for short), a machine with a tube that can spin tiny amounts of liquids around at dizzying speeds and at precise angles. It was developed by a team of researchers led by Australian Academy of Science Fellow Professor Colin Raston, and can do far more important things than simply reversing your cooking: it can produce alternative fuels more easily, create medicines more efficiently, chop up carbon nanotubes into nice evenly-sized pieces, and loads more.
So how does it work? Let’s unboil our egg to find out.
Step one: Boil your egg
Prior to heating, egg whites consist of a lot of proteins that are all folded up in precise knot-like structures held together by weak chemical bonds. By boiling your egg, you’re subjecting those neatly folded proteins to a lot of thermal energy, which breaks apart those weak bonds.
This gives the proteins freedom to move around, bump up against their neighbouring proteins, and form brand new weak bonds in new places. As more and more of these new bonds are formed, the movements of those proteins become restricted, and the egg white gels into a solid tangled mass: a boiled egg.
Step 2: Add some water and urea
Next, you will need to transform that solid mass back into a mostly-liquid form. Chop up the egg whites, add some urea (which just happens to be a chemical found in urine, so these may not be very tasty eggs any more), and dissolve them in water. The urea helps to liquefy the solid egg whites and break down some of the bonds between the proteins.
You’ve broken your clumped-together proteins apart—but those proteins still haven’t been able to re-fold into their original shapes yet.
Step 3: Spin it really, really fast
Load your wet, eggy mixture into the Vortex Fluidic Device and spin it at a speed of 5000 rotations per minute. This flings all that liquid to the sides of the glass tube at such great force, it spreads out into a very thin layer. The part of the solution that is closest to the wall spins faster than the solution that is closer to the middle. This difference in velocity between the different components of the solution creates shear stresses, causing those proteins to repeatedly stretch and contract, like pulling on a rubber band, until they re-form into their original pre-boiled shapes.
You have just used mechanical energy to undo what thermal energy did at the beginning. Nifty.
What else can it do?
Unboiling eggs was not the original intended goal for the Vortex Fluidic Device. It is used in the world of thin film microfluidics and thin film flow chemistry—in other words, manipulating liquids by spreading them out into a super-thin layer and keeping them moving continuously.
The device solves a lot of problems for scientists, usually by making things less wasteful, less expensive, easier and faster to do. It boasts an impressive (and growing) list of applications. Here are just a few examples:
Working with other proteins is made easier and less wasteful: working with proteins can be messy and time-consuming. A lot of precious sample can be lost when it gums up test tubes with a solid, gunky mess, which can then take days to untangle. However, just like with egg whites, the VFD can recover almost all the product and unfold it in a matter of minutes. This means less waste and faster production in fields such as cancer antibody research.
More efficient biofuel production: biodiesel is an alternative fuel made from renewable oils, such as sunflower or vegetable oil, eliminating the need for over-exploited fossil fuels. Traditionally, producing the fuel required very high temperatures and some relatively harsh chemicals—and you wouldn’t get much useable fuel from the process in the end. The VFD eliminates the need for those harsh chemicals and you will get a much bigger amount of useable fuel.
Chopping up carbon nanotubes for better solar panels: much like unfolded proteins, carbon nanotubes tend to get themselves into tangled messes, which are not very useful. Using the VFD, these tiny tubes can be sliced and diced with high precision into shorter pieces. These can be conductors or semi-conductors of electricity and can be used to make better, thinner solar cells—so thin, in fact, that practically transparent sheets could be produced, which could turn a window into a functional solar panel for generating electricity.
More effective medicine production: a whole range of pharmaceutical compounds can be produced quickly and with high yields. Sometimes the effectiveness of the drugs themselves can also be improved (compared to traditional production methods). For example, one treatment for a range of cancers was made more potent, more precisely targeted towards tumours, and produced fewer side effects.
The Vortex Fluidic Device is a tool for scientists to enable more efficient and less wasteful research and production, so anyone with a habit of accidentally boiling eggs will most likely need to find another solution for their breakfast woes. However, it is an exciting piece of technology that will keep yielding benefits for people and the planet well into the future.