Student gets seriously scientific about coffee

Coffee – the smell alone can do wonders for the mind, body and soul.

In fact, the aroma of coffee is important enough for scientific study, and a senior who is earning a degree in chemistry at SIU is steeping himself in a project to find out how to best preserve that wonderful smell and thereby produce a better cup of Joe.

Jackson Wood, of Apex, N.C., came to SIU specifically for the research opportunities afforded to undergraduates. Now he’s working with Mary Kinsel, an associate scientist in SIU’s Office of Sponsored Projects Administration and adjunct professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, on the project, which also involves another SIU alumnus, Curt Jones, founder of Dippin’ Dots Ice Cream.

Jones, who’s ice cream treat gets its special bead-like shape from flash freezing, has a new product called 40 Below Joe, a coffee preserved fresh by cryogenically freezing it instead of using traditional freeze-drying methods. He began experimenting with beads of frozen coffee several years ago to create the product, which can be served hot or cold.

Freeze-drying a product removes moisture, which can alter it. But freezing it cryogenically preserves the moisture, while the liquid nitrogen environment – which is low in oxygen – in theory prevents oxidation from altering the taste, as well.

But quantifying just how much better the product is – well, that’s where Wood and Kinsel come in.

The research involves comparing the aroma compounds in frozen coffee, analyzing the differences between frozen coffee and flash liquid nitrogen-frozen coffee. Wood also compared the difference between coffee stored at -20C and -40C over a period of six months to see how temperature affects quality.

The duo use scientific instrumentation, such as gas chromatography – mass spectrometry, to actually quantify the differences, taking the subjective concept of a pleasant aroma into the more objective world of chemistry.

For Wood, the work is exactly what he had in mind when he chose SIU.

“I came all the way from North Carolina to be involved in research at a Tier 1 research institute starting as a freshmen,” Wood said. “That’s not something any other Tier 1 can offer, and it has solidified my desire to do research as a career.”

Coffee, Wood points out, is one of the most popular commodities in the world and, therefore, of major economic and cultural interest.

“We are hoping to expand the research to discover the chemical compounds that cause coffee to taste bad, too,” he said. “All this has furthered my understanding of chemistry significantly.”

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