Clogged Ketchup No More With MIT's 'LiquiGlide'

On Memorial Day, many of us flip burgers, spear hot dogs, and whack a ketchup bottle trying to coax a stubborn glob of the stuff out and onto the bun. Now, a team of scientists at MIT has decided that this ketchup-to-bottle adhesion is a problem that must be fixed. Melissa Block talks with doctoral MIT student Adam Paxson about a solution some researchers have developed.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This being Memorial Day, many of you have been flipping burgers, spearing hot dogs and then whacking a ketchup bottle to try to coax that stubborn glob of red stuff out onto the bun.

Well, a team of scientists at MIT has decided that this ketchup-to-bottle adhesion is a problem that must be fixed and they've come up with a solution. Adam Paxson, what's the solution called?

ADAM PAXSON: We are calling it LiquiGlide.

BLOCK: LiquiGlide. And, Adam, you're a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at MIT. You're part of this team. Why don't you explain how it works?

PAXSON: Yeah. It's a super slippery surface coating. I guess the technical jargon would be an ultra-low adhesion surface. You can make it out of a bunch of different materials, as long as they satisfy certain requirements in, like, viscosity and surface energy, but we did this huge exhaustive search to find out a way to actually make it out of food materials.

BLOCK: Food materials? What kind of food materials are we talking about and are they things that I would want to be consuming along with my ketchup?

PAXSON: Well, if you wanted to scratch this off and eat it, it would actually be completely fine. Yeah, this is stuff that is edible.

BLOCK: And can you tell me what's in it or is that a trade secret?

PAXSON: What exactly it's made of, I'm afraid I can't, actually. We're still doing some IP filings, but imagine you're chewing gum and you want to throw it out and, if you grab your gum with dry fingers, it's going to stick, but if you lick your fingers, it'll just slide right off, so that's sort of how it works.

BLOCK: Aha. Now, IP filing - you're talking about intellectual property?

PAXSON: Right.

BLOCK: You know, Adam, there's a whole mystique around the Heinz ketchup brand that was built around that excruciatingly slow slide of ketchup out of the bottle. There's a famous ad campaign from the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTICIPATION")

CARLY SIMON: (Singing) Anticipation.

BLOCK: It's all built around this famous Carly Simon song, "Anticipation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thick, rich Heinz ketchup. The taste is worth the wait.

BLOCK: And then that tag line, the taste is worth the wait. You really are, I think, upending a whole culture here of slowness being a good thing.

PAXSON: Yeah. This is something really interesting that we found out in our market research was - they have, like, this speed gate that they run ketchup down with a little stopwatch and, if it's too fast, they, like, throw the batch away.

BLOCK: No way. Really?

PAXSON: Well, I guess it's something they stuck to for the past decades or so, so it's not our concern to upend it, but I'd rather have ketchup flow out easily than stay stuck. I don't know.

BLOCK: Well, who wants this, Adam? Who wants the ketchup to be sliding more smoothly out of the bottle?

PAXSON: So we've gotten a lot of interest from a bunch of food companies. Any time you have a really thick sauce that's hard to get out of the bottle, this helps to let it slide. So, in food mechanics, you'd call it a no-slip boundary condition.

BLOCK: A no-slip boundary condition?

PAXSON: And we can get rid of that.

BLOCK: Wow, I like that. How much bottle pounding and experimenting have you been doing along the way for this project?

PAXSON: Well, it's funny. If you open up our chemical closet and there's just a bunch of mustard and ketchup and honey spread everywhere. They have us put not for consumption labels on the food just because we're working on it in a laboratory.

BLOCK: And other uses for this substance you've come up with?

PAXSON: So my research is looking at applying it to condensers in power plants, so it's a little bit different from ketchup. I've built a little miniature power plant to test this new coating out on these surfaces.

BLOCK: But, for some reason, people seem to be more interested in hearing about the ketchup bottles.

PAXSON: They are much more interested in the ketchup. That's true.

BLOCK: Well, Adam Paxson, thanks so much for talking to us about LiquiGlide, designed to get ketchup out of the bottle faster.

PAXSON: Thank you.

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