A Don at Oxford University has come up with a novel way to measure the hotness of chilli peppers objectively. Using carbon nanotubes and adsortive stripping voltammetry, Professor Richard Compton’s idea could end up replacing the Scoville test, a subjective taste test created almost a century ago, that uses volunteers, and works on a “which is hotter than which” basis.
Professor Compton’s method is, although the Guardian doesn’t make this clear at all, I think, a way of simplifying the test. Giz’s resident boffin, Kit Eaton, explained it to me thus:
The stripping voltammetry bit is a way of quantifying specific “ionic species” i.e. amounts of a substance, so basically they break down the raw chilli stuff into a bunch of recognisable chemicals, and then measure how much of the particular “hotness-causing” ones there are.
The Prof’s discovery did not come about through a love for chillis, but because he saw a diagram of capsaicin, the thing that makes chillis hot to trot, and thought that its flat molecule could help test . “We weren’t finding a method for detecting chilli,” he says. “Rather, chilli happened to help our fundamental science.”
The method works by printing out a bunch of nanotubes that have been joined up into a strip. Once connected into a circuit, the strip becomes an electrode. The molecules then stick to the nano-electrodes and can be measured or tested. A patent has been applied for, and once Professor Compton’s idea is fully developed, it will be used for other, more interesting things than chillis, such as drug detection. Oh. Now I wish I’d never written about it. [Guardian Unlimited]