Lightning in a bagS

Find out how it will make everyone's food safer someday.

Historically, big things have scared people most. Whether they're sharks, dinosaurs, genetically modified ants, or just men with tattoos who use the name ‘Tiny' ironically, most people's nightmares revolve around something large jumping out at them from the shadows. Statistically this doesn't make much sense. Since the problem of those pesky mastodons has been cleared up, walls keep out all but the most determined bears, and chimpanzees owners are stupid enough to deserve all the biting they get, small things are much more dangerous.

For example, nothing ruins a nice meal of reprocessed meat, lumpy mashed potatoes, and inexplicably peripatetic peas, like spending the next few nights vomiting up the bacteria that they were all crawling with. Killing off the thousands of little creatures that all want to eat the same things humans do is a strenuously regulated, meticulous process that could be made a lot cooler is there were lightning involved.

Now, there can be.

Scientists are studying ways of killing the bacteria in food, not through actually shocking it, but by applying enough of a voltage differential that the air around it ionizes. There are two major advantages to this method: it can be done is a sealed container, and can be done with regular air and not with special gases. All that's needed is to apply a large difference in charge between one side of the container of food and the other. The air in the container will begin to ionize, meaning the outer electrons will get tugged away from the atomic nuclei, giving each a net charge. This is where the ‘lightning' comes in, since ionized gas often glows.

The process of ionization creates ozone. Ozone is a gas made of a certain kind of oxygen. Usually, oxygen atoms are found in pairs, sharing their outer electrons to become stable. During ionization, oxygen pairs get ripped apart enough to form oxygen trios. This is when three oxygen atoms all share their outer electrons and travel around stuck together.

Any search results for ‘ozone' will probably include the phrase ‘highly reactive.' This is a nonspecific, bland, scientific term which generally means, ‘it will rip into molecules like Jaws into a life raft.' This process is bad for buildings, statues, and human lungs. All of these things are significantly bigger than a molecule of ozone. For bacteria, which are more in ozone's weight class, getting exposed to ozone, and to ionized air, is a very bad thing.

At least they don't suffer for very long. The process takes from several seconds to a few minutes, and leaves the food unharmed. It has the potential to do a lot of good. Best of all, according to the scientist in charge, it could be done at home. How much more fun would cooking be if everyone were forced to zap the hell out of a bag of potatoes for ‘safety reasons'?

Via Popsci, the EPA, and Air Info Now.