I love smelling like a grease trap, said no one ever. The question of how to get rid of the smell of cooking grease from one's clothes and surroundings has attracted advice ranging from soaking the garments in ammonia and hot water, to spraying vodka on everything. In the near future, there might no longer be a need to resort to such measures thanks to a new technology that uses cold plasma technology to zap these odors right at the source.

Past studies have shown how cold plasma, with its bactericidal properties, can be used to disinfect human skin and wounds, kill drug-resistant bacteria and get rid of lice, fungi and viruses. So why not apply this technology to getting rid of cooking odors? Most range and ventilation hoods are designed to be energy efficient, with odor reduction a distant afterthought. In the models that do get rid of the smells, the health benefits are typically negligible as the chemicals used in the process end up producing ozone, which is an equally harmful pollutant.

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To combat this problem, German deep fat fryer manufacturer Blümchen turned to the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, which developed a patented method for developing an odor-removing cold plasma technology using electrons.

The technology used in the odor-removing cold plasma filter was developed on the International Space Station (Credit: MPE–M. Kretschmer)

To remove odours, the plasma is first generated by sparking an electrical discharge in the air between a short rod electrode sitting in the middle of a cylindrical electrode. It then spreads out to form a plasma disc when agitated by a magnetic field. The cooking fumes are first filtered through two conventional air filters, which remove fine dust, particles and humidity, leaving behind blue smoke, bacteria and the odor molecules. A third filter captures the blue smoke from the burning fat while the plasma filters neutralize the germs and odor molecules that pass through them.

The cold plasma filters, seen here as purple discs, neutralize the odors that pass through them (Credit: Terraplasma)

"The thin plasma sheet breaks the offending molecules up into harmless components that do not smell and do not need to be extracted afterwards," explains Gregor Morfill, a professor at the Max Planck Institute and CEO of Terraplasma, a firm that specializes in the applications of cold plasma technology.

"It's also about a thousand times faster than the traditional chemical method," he says, further elaborating to New Atlas that the new technique takes a millisecond compared to the current one, which takes seconds. The difference might seem negligible, but these extra milliseconds explain why the traditional professional cooking hoods are more than a meter in length.

The remaining particles are removed by a final carbon filter, leaving behind only oxygen, moisture and carbon dioxide.

Since the filter cartridge is just 10 cm (3.9 in) long, owners of existing Blümchen systems will be able to use them in their systems, without having to change their entire hood to accommodate the new technology.

"The potential market is huge," says Georg Hirtz, CEO of Blümchen. "There are theoretically 600,000 systems in Germany alone, so with an average lifetime of 10 years, around 60,000 units a year are needed here."

There's even the possibility of adapting the filter for household use, which would increase its market share as up to 10 million new cooker hoods are sold annually to households in Europe, notes Hirtz.

While the idea of a compact all-in-one frying station that can eliminate odors certainly sounds like a welcome prospect for restaurant owners, cooks and diners alike, the efficacy of the plasma filters in an actual professional cooking environment remains to be seen. The tests, according to Morfill, were conducted with ammonia. No information was given regarding the airflow volumes or scale at which they were conducted.

A prototype of Blümchen’s new all-in-one frying station that eliminates odors without the need for a bulky venting system, thanks to the cold plasma filters (Credit: Blümchen)

Brett Singer, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who studies the impact of cooking emissions on indoor air quality tells New Atlas that one of the challenges with cooking odors lies in catching all the fumes. "This requires a large hood with relatively large airflows for commercial applications," he says.

A full prototype is planned for 2017 and if all is successful, the first cold plasma devices should hit the market in early 2018, with Blümchen producing and supplying the filters or licensing the technology to cooker hood manufacturers.

Source: European Space Agency

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