Engineering a better frying pan

Posted Tuesday, February 23, 2016 at 11:09 AM

"Engineers are finding new ways to improve our lives with ceramics."

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Engineering a better frying pan

PostedTuesday, February 23, 2016 at 11:15 AM

Kate Gramling
Kate Gramling
Engineering a better frying pan

My sister-in-law recently started working with a trainer on a special weight-loss program. One of the trainer’s first recommendations was that she start replacing with her old pots and pans with new ceramic-coated ones.

I heard “ceramic pan” and pictured a dented blue and white kettle that our family used to take on camping trips. It was lightweight, easy to chip, and – in my mind – made the water taste funny. We had a matching large pot we used only to cook corn on the cob because, if you tried to heat anything other than water in it, food would burn and stick to certain areas on the bottom of the pan.

But the high-tech tools the trainer was talking about were made for kitchens – not campfires.

If you take a walk down the cookware aisle of your local department store, you’ll probably see “green” or ceramic “stick resistant” pans in all different sizes and colors. These pans have slick cooking surfaces that release food like non-stick pans, but don’t release any of the chemicals associated with those coatings. The ceramic surfaces are still lightweight, but they are now scratch-resistant, and provide even heating so there’s no more burn spots.

Better cooking pans are just one of the many ways in which ceramics can improve our lives.

Ceramics are non-metallic materials made from inorganic minerals. The name comes from the Greek word for pottery and prior to the 20th century, ceramics were mostly containers or pieces of art. The oldest ceramic object found so far is a statue of a woman that dates back to the stone age, roughly 27,000 years ago.

Ceramics are manufactured from ingredients that are first mined, then milled (broken into small pieces), and prepared for processing. The processing is a lot like cooking because it involves combining different minerals according to recipes, forming mixtures into shapes, and then heating to remove water and finish the product. Of course the real manufacturing process is more complex and requires very careful control of both the ingredients and the environment where the processing takes place.

Engineers, particularly in the last century, have refined the recipes and processing methods to create hundreds of new products. Ceramics are used to create super sharp knives, high-speed engines, bulletproof vests, biodegradable bone splints, even space vehicles. In fact, most of the electronic gadgets you use every day, rely on ceramic parts to function properly.

In the future, ceramic engineers – as well as chemical, electrical, materials, and mechanical engineers – will continue to find new applications for ceramics. Perhaps one day you or one of your friends will design a new kind of cookware that will make my new omelet pan seem as quaintly old-fashioned as that campfire kettle.

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