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Waiter, there’s a bug in my cocktail!

By Hamish Johnston

Just in time for Christmas, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have unveiled the ultimate “cocktail accessory”. It’s an edible self-propelled boat that whizzes around on the surface of an alcoholic drink.

Created by John Bush and colleagues at MIT along with the celebrity chef José Andrés, the boat can be made of gelatine or sugar and is fuelled by higher-proof alcohol than the cocktail itself. The novelty was inspired by how certain insects save themselves when they fall into water. Instead of doing the backstroke, these bugs emit a chemical that reduces the surface tension of the water in one direction, causing them to move in the opposite direction.

The boats were shaped using silicone moulds and their hollow interiors filled with alcohol, which can escape slowly through a notch at the rear of the tiny vessels (see video). The researchers found that the boats could tootle about for up to two minutes before running out of fuel.

Bush, Andrés and colleagues have also unveiled a “floral pipette” that is based on how water lilies – which are anchored to lake bottoms – protect their flowers when water levels rise. As the flowers become flooded, hydrostatic forces cause their petals to fold-up, protecting the business end of the flower from water. When the tip of the floral pipette is pulled out of a liquid, its petals fold up, forming a small pouch containing a small amount of liquid (see video). The closed petals resemble a cherry, which when brought to the lips open and release the liquid.

The petals themselves could be moulded from edible materials, offering a new way of serving small amounts of a drink, for example. “It turns out to be an elegant way to serve a small volume of palate-cleansing liquor between courses,” says Bush.

Andrés’s company ThinkFoodGroup is now trying to develop the ideas further.

The boats and pipette are described in the article “Biomimicry and the culinary arts“, which appears in the IOP Publishing journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

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