Nestlé is using zero gravity research to develop its understanding of the foam technology used in its products.
The study could help Nestlé scientists create better air bubbles in chocolate, coffee, dairy and pet food.
Bubbles are added to products, like chocolate mousse and coffee froth, to make the right texture or consistency.
‘A natural fit’
The company recently conducted zero gravity research on ‘parabolic’ flights with the European Space Agency and a team of international foam research scientists.
“It seemed like a natural fit to work together with Nestlé since the ESA is already supporting research on foam technologies,” said Dr Olivier Minster, Physical Sciences Unit Head for the Human Spaceflight and Operations Directorate at the ESA.
Before the flights, Nestlé scientists placed six 5ml samples of water and milk protein in a special machine that analyses the structure of foam, carried on board the European Space Agency sponsored A300 airbus plane.
Flying at a maximum height of 28,000 ft (8,500m), the plane made about 30 ‘parabolas’, or up-and-down dips, creating weightlessness inside the fuselage in short bursts.
Achieving the ‘perfect’ bubble
“These flights have the same effect as being on a rollercoaster,” said Dr Cécile Gehin-Delval, a scientist at the Nestlé Research Center.
“Each parabola lasts about 20 seconds and creates zero gravity or weightlessness.
“During those short periods, we study the milk protein closely to see if it makes foam and how stable the bubbles are.”
The stability of the bubbles determines the shelf-life of a number of products and is key to the consumer’s taste experience.
“We want to make a near to ‘perfect’ bubble in order to achieve the right balance for different products in our range – not too big, not too small,” she added
“Stable foam in chocolate mousse gives the feeling of creaminess in the mouth. To make fine coffee froth, we want to create stable little bubbles to make it light and creamy.”
Unstable in gravity
Foam is unstable in gravity because the liquid between the bubbles flows downwards.
When the liquid film between the bubbles is very thin, it can break and the foam collapses.
Foam is easier to study under zero gravity conditions because weightlessness causes bubbles to be evenly dispersed rather than floating to the top.
Foam at zero gravity
Nestlé has been following ESA’s activities in this field for over a decade. This is now the first time Nestlé is conducting foam experiments in zero gravity conditions.
“We have been conducting studies on foam for many years using other methods,” explained Dr Gehin-Delval.
“Gaining a better understanding of foam may help improve the texture of our products.”
European Space Agency
The European Space Agency carries out parabolic flights several times a year to conduct zero gravity experiments and tests in various scientific and technology fields.
The organisation has investigated foam technologies in space since the 1980s.
ESA conducts experiments in physical and life sciences, human physiology including nutrition and biology, environmental sciences and research on the International Space Station (ISS).
Nestlé will now be able to use a foaming device on the ISS which was developed by the European Space Agency to study foam in zero gravity for a longer period of time.
“Our projects generate knowledge that aim to connect to the development of ground applications and new space systems and technologies,” said Dr Minster. “This contributes to drive research in space.”
Continuing space research
Nestlé was the first food and beverage company to use space research starting in the late 1980s.
Nestlé scientists studied the mechanism of the effect of muscle loss in astronauts on a multinational flight with a German space lab in 1993 to help improve Nestlé healthcare products.
Nestlé Research Center website http://www.research.nestle.com
European Space Agency http://www.esa.int/esaCP/index.html
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