Cavitation Salvation


Could techniques similar to those used by the remarkable mantis shrimp help revolutionise brewing? According to a group of Italian scientists, a process called "cavitation" could save time, water, energy and waste. Dan Sandy takes a look.


All of us of beer drinking age have grown up in an era of fantastical technological advancements. For decades, generation after generation will have watched with wide-eyed disbelief as TV and film prophesied often wacky interpretations of how tech would enrich and/or ruin our lives. Now, it’s incredible to think how much of that fiction has translated into real life application. 

Yet, despite the promise of Willie Wonka’s drink that never goes flat, Hollywood has fallen short when it came to imagining how our beloved brew could or should be enjoyed in the future. Surely tomorrow’s brewers were as deserving of cinematic inspiration as Jobs and Wozniak were when they first saw the Star Trek tricorder – the reputed source of inspiration for what would become the iPhone? 

Sure, there have been incredible refinements in technology, chemistry and fermentation down the years, but the basic principles of brewing have changed little since the days of the original innovators.

So, if Hollywood won’t help, to whom should we turn for inspiration? Step forward potential brewing legend Lorenzo Albanese*. 

Lorenzo is no bearded, beanie-wearing brewer*; instead, he heads up a team of scientists looking to apply the mind-bending physics involved in a process known as cavitation to brewing. 

*Lorenzo Albanese, bearded and wearing a beanie, in a photo set up and sent through by the team after they read this article!


If successful, they hope to reduce brew times, water usage, energy consumption and waste byproducts in one fell swoop. That might sound like something dreamed up in Tinseltown but, before we get into the particulars, let’s take a look at cavitation itself.

Nothing to do with dental misery, cavitation is the formation and implosion of vapour cavities (tiny bubbles to the layman) in a liquid during rapid pressure increases and decreases. Basically, as they implode, seriously badass things happen. 

The rapid collapse of just one of these tiny bubbles produces a shockwave that can create temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees Kelvin and pressures some 5,000 times greater than our atmosphere. If it’s good enough for the mantis shrimp (seriously, watch one of those things attack), then Lorenzo and his cohorts at the snappily named Istituto di Biometeorologia e Istituto per lo Studio dei Materiali Nanostrutturati believe these forces could be harnessed to fundamentally change traditional brewing methods.

Less of this?


How? The first potential advantage is that cavitation pulps malted grains, the starting point for beer from which fermentable sugars are drawn, “down to less than 100 microns in size within a few minutes”, according to the Italian scientists. Getting grains down to twice the diameter of a human hair is no mean feat and could dispense with the requirement to mill the grains beforehand.

Cavitation also increases the rate at which starch passes from the pulverised malted grain into the wort (the sugary water that is boiled with hops before being chilled and turned into beer by yeast). In fact, it does this so efficiently that virtually zero starch is left in the malt at the end of the process. This is big from a water usage point of view as it means sparging (spraying the milled grains with water to extract as much as possible) also becomes a thing of the past.

And because starch is released quicker and more efficiently, it’s transformation into simpler, fermentable sugars can take place at lower temperatures, once again saving energy and time. 

Last but not least, cavitation could help improve the efficiency of the chemical processes that occur during the boil. It causes unpleasant, volatile gases to degas quickly, denatures enzymes in the wort and allows hop flavours to mix in easily. If that means little to you, basically it means brewers wouldn’t need to spend extra time and energy getting the wort to boil.

Granted, that was a fair amount to take in, but the main thing to remember is that the researchers believe this technology has the potential to offer massive energy savings and quicker processes in a world in which brewers are often under pressure for faster turnarounds and keen to reduce energy usage and wastage. 


But, before any homebrewers start Googling "homemade cavitation brewing for less than $100", we asked James Perrin (pictured above), Packaging & Sustainability Manager at Stone & Wood, what he made of cavitation's potential.

“There is still something about the ‘traditional’ brewing process which is quite romantic,” he says. “That traditional, handcrafted approach… I think people just love and admire it like an art form, and just enjoy making beer this way.”

He also points out that cavitation does little to tackle one of the industry’s longest standing issues: consistency. 

“I do have doubts [about cavitation] because brewing is such a fine-tuned process," he says. "Many brewers have found it hard enough to make the same tasting beer on a different brewhouse, let alone through an entirely new process!” 

But that’s not to say there isn't potential. 

“If the reduction in wastage is true, though, maybe there’s some merit in trialling cavitation as part of the process in future," says James. "Maybe not to replace the entire brewing process but possibly as a process upstream of mashing, as an initial step to break apart the grain and extract starches to start the conversion process.” 

So, maybe this is what we could expect, in the near future at least. As the saying goes: “Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.”** 

After all, the iPhone 7 would be nothing without the (commercially disastrous) Apple Newton. When implementing such a different, violent and, as yet, untested process into the loving, time honoured, hands-on brewing process we all know and love, baby steps are a sensible option. If it is to become part of brewing in the future, cavitation will need time to earn its stripes. 

But that doesn’t mean a revolution won't be coming. After all, remember how unlikely jet packs and hover boards seemed 25 years ago? And yet


Sources:

* Albanese L, Ciriminna R, Meneguzzo F, Pagliaro M, Beer-brewing powered by controlled hydrodynamic cavitation: Theory and real-scale experiments, Journal of Cleaner Production (2016), doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.11.162. 

** Guy Kawasaki


About the author: Dan Sandy is an ex-ad wanker who saw the light and dedicated his life to the frothy stuff – working at Nomad Brewing Co and Beer Cartel before taking up with Bucket Boys Beer Co in Marrickville. When he isn’t drinking or reading about beer, he’s probably recovering from it.

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