Season 3

Episode 8 – Kitchen Lab – ft. Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Markus Antonietti

Episode 7 Episodes list Episodes 9 and 10

In this episode, Bea talks to Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Markus Antonietti, a director of Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, about his kitchen lab and the projects that are carried out within it.
Markus tells the history of the kitchen lab, from its conception as a teaching tool for children to its current form as a research space, where kitchen utensils and cooking techniques can be used for chemical processes, and why this is a way toward more sustainable and practical chemistry. Markus talks about the setup of the kitchen lab and describes a number of projects that have been carried out within it as well as some that are still ongoing, including creating a circular economy of wood, the extraction of resveratrol in the kitchen environment as a replacement for BPA, encapsulation processes of perfume and oils for cosmetics, and improving the texture of vegan burgers. Markus highlights the numerous advantages as well as some limitations that his kitchen lab has and explains how it fits into the Max Planck Research Community.

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Bea: Hello and welcome back to the Offspring Magazine Podcast season 3! It’s Bea and I will be hosting today’s podcast. Today we will be talking to professor Markus Antonietti who is a director at the Max Plank Institute of Colloids and Interfaces. His research focuses on sustainable chemistry and recently he set up a kitchen lab, which comes from the idea that cooking and chemistry come together. He asked: why don’t we do chemistry using the kitchen utensils, machines, and processes which can also be useful for synthetic chemists? So rather than being a lab where edible food is made, he uses kitchen apparatus to make non-edible products. Professor Antonietti has a wide variety of interesting projects taking place in the kitchen lab such as projects on circular economy of wood, the extraction of resveratrol in the kitchen environment as a replacement for BPA, encapsulation processes of perfumes and oils for cosmetics, and many more. So stay tuned if you want to find out about these projects and exactly how the kitchen lab works. I hope you will enjoy this podcast!

B: Hi, Markus! Thank you so much for joining us today! Why don’t we just start by having you introduce yourself and telling us what you do?

Markus Antonietti: Yeah, I’m Markus Antonietti, I’m at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces. I do my current job as a director now for 29 years.

B: Wow.

MA: So I’m a rather experienced director and, of course, as that, I’m facing in 5 years my retirement, and this is why I’m allowed now to be creative and free as practically none of my younger colleagues, because I can do the things I want to do. And kitchen lab, of cours,e is one of these ideas, which I started and which now really turns to a big success story even.

B: Great, so let’s go back and why don’t you just tell us, like, what you do but also you can mention the other research groups that you have?

MA: Okay, if you like, no problem. So I’m director of the department of Colloid Chemistry and I’m working on sustainable chemistry now for the last 25 years. I’m trained as a polymer chemist but meanwhile, I mostly do carbon-negative products, catalysis for the energy, environmental change, yeah. I have about 1.000 papers and around 60 of my people are now professors.

B: Oh wow, okay. And so then talk a bit about the kitchen lab, so what is the kitchen lab?

MA: The kitchen lab comes from the idea that I like cooking, of course, and I’m a chemist. And at home practically, yeah, my wife and my daughters prefer that I cook because, obviously, chemists I experienced. And then I talked to other peers and we found out that cooking and chemistry comes in many cases indeed together. So many chemists are trained and excellent creative chefs. So I was looking for the reasons and then, of course, you know, molecular cuisine, rotational vaporizer, vacuum freeze-drying – this has found entry and Michelin star cuisine. But I was interested in the inversion: why we do not use a standard kitchen and do chemistry in a standard kitchen? Or: are cooking processes also beneficial for chemistry, for synthetic chemistry? And, at the beginning, it was meant for school kids because, whenever they touch a chemical, of course, you have to have an allowance. And if they would take supermarket products, and even pharmacy products, or headache pills are allowed, can they do, explore the beauty of chemistry with that? And it started like that but the kitchen lab was then quickly taken over by my graduate students. Because they found an appeal in kitchen tools to scale up the recipes we are doing. And, meanwhile, I would say it’s one of the most heavily used laboratories because you can make chemistry in short time by cooking process and avoid some of problems you have in an ordinary lab.

B: Okay, interesting. So what kind of recipes do you make in the kitchen lab?

MA: So typically what you know is baking, yeah? So there’s a pizza oven. A pizza oven is a remarkably controlled piece so can go to 550 degrees centigrade, and for people doing solid-state condensations and materials, this is a standard temperature. Be aware that the airbus 380 is baked in an autoclave, but we use a pizza oven for that, so we do carbonization chemistry. The product, however, is not edible. It’s not dangerous but not edible. We bake ceramic plates, shields, wood replacement, foams, insulation foams. And I think insulation form is a thing easy to explain: we have polystyrene foam – this is special waste in Germany so it costs you about 100 times more to get rid of it than to buy it because it’s full of brominated compounds – and what we did is we made a type of souffle, a porous structure baked in the oven, which can replace polystyrene. And it works very nicely.

B: Okay, so basically, the way I understand, is that, like, you’re reversing the kitchen – so you’re using the kitchen techniques but you’re not actually making food, you’re making other, non-edible useful material.

MA: Yes, I think it’s important, it’s still a Max Planck operation and, of course, we are paid by the taxpayer, and new food is not a part of our institute profile. Yeah, this is very clear. But think about: you make a kilogram of noodles, and the noodle is, in the very end, then a hollow structure, which looks like your raschig rings in chemistry. Which means it’s, indeed, an active catalyst structure in principle. So we can make catalytic active noodles by a pasta machine. And we have a one-kilogram amount immediately. This one-kilogram amount is needed to talk to the engineers. However, I have to be honest, I cannot control what my people do in their free time, and I already know that the number of things, without being paid by the Max Planck Society, of course, have made it into the vegan kitchen. For instance, vegan whipping cream, so all these are colloidal processes. Of course, yeah, if you want to explore something new, and again, this is done too, and as the kitchen lab, of course, is a space free of toxic compounds and no instrument was ever used for a chemical, real chemical purpose, this is possible and allowed, yeah. So yes, people do food recipes, there are brilliant things you can do, yeah, like, new type spinach cakes and so on. Where you really teach the rules of colloid chemistry and apply it even in a cooking recipe. But, officially, this is done after work by using the infrastructure for your own, solve your own problems.

B: Yeah. So what kind of other in infrastructure or yeah apparatus do you have in your kitchen lab? Apart from the pizza oven, of course.

MA: Everything which is a kitchen. So we try to make it really, we have a needle, for instance, we have an extruder, it’s called. So everything you know as a kitchen machine is used for recipe. Yeah, so and even you can program these things and then you immediately see the advantage, yeah, because a kneader, where you can knead a dough into it, and you can buy a professional one for a thousand euro, a corresponding kneader would cost ten thousand euro if it’s allowed for chemicals. So this is the economy of scale, yeah. And indeed kneading, in material science, is a standard operation. Extruding, this is more on the chemical engineering side, of course. But all these things are to be done. And the crazy thing is: all that is much cheaper if you take kitchen tools.

B: Okay, so the kitchen tools are actually a lot cheaper than the apparatus that we have in the lab.

MA: Of course. There is 20 million people who have a kitchen and then maybe 1.000 people have a lab. So this is called economy of scale, yeah?

B: Yeah. Well,  I’m not sure if everyone has a kneader at home but…

MA: This is, I would say, more the obsession of elder rich colleagues, where the kids are grown up and where you start to look for fanciness you can place in your kitchen. If you ever have watched a german cooking show, you see that all of them have these tools, yeah. Some of them are even cooking robots, yeah. And I can only tell you, robotized synthesis has arrived in the kitchen but it has not arrived in the chemistry lab. So you see how much chemistry can learn indeed from kitchen work.

B: Yeah. I guess you’re limited with scale though. You can’t really scale up so much or is that possible?

MA: So I think you are an organic chemist, yeah?

B: I am an organic chemist, yes.

MA: Good, so when you do a lot it’s a gram.

B: Yeah.

MA: Usually most of your stuff is done in a milligram. And there’s a world outside, called application, of course, if you come with a hundred milligrams to them, they look as desperate as they always look because the smallest amount they can use to see if the scale-up works is maybe 100 grams, maybe a kilogram. We don’t talk about the 15 tons, you know, indeed in industrial production. But don’t forget, it’s kitchen lab and if you make a cake a kilogram is nothing for you. And this mismatch of scales in your chemistry work and in your cooking work, yeah, this is something we can breach a bridge for no price. So if I’m doing heterogeneous catalyst, for instance, the kilogram scale is a scale where you start to talk with industry colleagues without any problems. I would say, a chemistry would be much for far progress if all your beautiful things you do in the lab would really arrive in technology but we have this scale gap and the kitchen lab is one of the tools to close the scale gap. And this is maybe scientifically oversold but this is what it is at the moment.

B: Okay, interesting. So tell me about some of the projects that you have going? Because I’m really interested to know what kind of projects you actually do.

MA: Okay, the most important thing, which will make me turn scale, is a circular economy of wood. You know, of course, that we have concrete building and wood houses. And concrete is very non-sustainable concerning CO2 footprint. So in the very end, you want to have a circular product. And many people try to reinvent wood building because wood building, of course, wood is regrowing, yeah. And we want to go one step further. So in Berlin, they built the first wooden skyscraper. But, if you type in wooden skyscraper in google, you see maybe 100 projects all over the world. Because we cannot even pay for the houses we have to pay according to current price standards. So if CO2 prices wood at building, no one could afford an apartment anymore. So we go back to wood. And this wood is in our case is circular. So what we do in the very end: we take wood, even not the most beautiful pieces you use for construction, but even waste products, and we disintegrate as chemist the wood into three products: it’s cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, yeah. And this is, in the very end, also done in, of course, cellulose mill or paper mill but we use also the two other compounds. Then in a duct-like feature, which means we make a wood cake, we remix the cellulose and the lignin and the hemicellulose, and we melt, extrude to a new piece. And you can imagine, for instance, an IKEA shelf, but this IKEA shelf, because it’s now grown with optimized chemistry, is eight times as stable as the ordinary IKEA shelf. You cannot bend it, you cannot break it. I always have little pieces to show around. And all that is done in the kitchen because the remixing is done in the kneader, the extrusion is done in an extruder, and we, of course, press it to some type of lasagna, yeah, and this lasagna is then recondensed to the wood. And we believe, indeed, that we can use this for furniture, yeah. I’m a material chemist, everything with me is automatically scale and automatically a product. And think about, indeed, if you would go to IKEA and the load you put in your car would be eight times less, yeah. This is a big thing because the size of IKEA pieces is only limited by the ability to carry it into your apartment. So IKEA would even sell much more, yeah, because everyone is shopping as much as she or he can carry, yeah? And, of course, also the liberty of construction. The fact that everything is straight is of course coming is coming from sawmills, yeah. If we extrude the stuff, I can make any wood construction with any curvature because then it looks like, well, in the very end the melt extrude piece of plastic with this wood, yeah. And this is exactly the idea. So indeed I think here, the rigatoni is a perfect case, rigatoni is just a hollow tube, yeah. And if you have then such a hollow tube, yeah, you can make tomato sticks out of it and construction pieces, yeah. But it’s essentially just a rigatoni, you put it to your garden.

B: Okay, so so that’s one of the projects, where you just you remake wood into a better form?

MA: Yeah, the other thing is indeed, and this is maybe closer to food that we are going, to the secret recipes health benefits of tea, or red wine, of course, in my case. And one of the compounds, you can easily extract also in a kitchen environment, is a molecule called resveratrol. Resveratrol is a stilbenoid with three dihydroxy groups. Yeah, and it has the perfect chance to be the future replacement for bisphenol a. Bisphenol a is, I don’t know if you know, bisphenol a, but it’s sad to say, in all epoxy resins, it’s in all polycarbonate. And then, it’s an endocrine disruptor. So bisphenol a maybe kills the family wishes of forty thousand young millions in Germany because it really makes men infertile. Yeah, and so its replacement is needed. We really tried to make a food construction to resveratrol and from resveratrol, here, there’s a gap where we have to go to the lab: we do an epoxidation, indeed, resveratrol based epoxy resins are not endocrine disruptive, are biodegradable, and have the potential to replace bisphenol in a number of places. Where is now the kitchen dimension? Of course, you don’t want to win resveratrol from wine. You do it, in the very, end from an immigrant plant, this is a Japanese grass, I only know the german name. And this… Japanese switch grass is the name, contains 15% of the root is resverator. So what you do? In the very end, you make mashed potatoes and you extract the resveratrol in the kitchen towards a resveratrol ridge fraction. Which, of course, are standard operations of chemistry but also standard operations of cooking. I like this project very much because it’s a real molecule created, it’s created from an immigrant plant, and the step, really the key step is to win it from the roots of an invasive plant – and this is a kitchen operation.

B: But then, I’m interested in the extraction. So how do you actually extract resveratrol in the kitchen, like, what kind of technique do you use there?

MA: Oh, it’s called in the very end, fermentation. So you need, indeed, you have to start with a stage of microbial… first, you do a really, you put it in a mulinette – so you have to shred it, yeah. Then, you have this meshed, this meshed roots, yeah. And then, indeed, because resveratrol is glucose-related you have to ferment it. And we ferment it, indeed, with some type like Heferteig or like a yeast dough, yeah. And after that, you really go extraction. And a good thing with resveratrol is: you can solve it in ethanol, yeah. So we do an ethanolic extraction, which, you know, is a part of some cooking recipes, it’s like a liquor you create, yeah. And like, it’s really everything is still allowed, yeah, here. We have to tell them, you know, not to drink the ethanol but that’s okay.

B: Yeah, that’s true. And so there’s advantages of extracting resveratrol in the kitchen lab versus extracting it in a chemical lab?

MA: No, never indeed. This is always… the lab as we use it, of course, is optimized for cleanness. Productivity is different. That’s the point, you know. So if you extract a resveratrol in a stock, like, extractor, the whole construction is that you can, maybe, take a hundred gram of roots and you end up with maybe 10 grams of resveratrol. You can do it, this is no problem. The problem is: I can do it on this kilogram scale immediately. It’s cheaper and it’s more comfy. And it’s closer to the later production process, I would say. So I don’t believe that indeed most of the industrial chemistry operations are clean tech, yeah. Some of them are rather dirty, yeah. If you have observed a number of production sites: they look clean but they are not really clean because the product has to be cheap and affordable. And it has to be run, of course, in an effective manner.

B: Yeah, that’s a really cool project, I really like that. But it’s very also, I feel like, it’s just different to the wood. I feel like it’s two completely different projects, actually. So yeah, what other projects do you have?

MA: Well, now we are already in cosmetics. So a big part of colloid science is indeed emulsion stabilization. And here, there is a new rising star how to enter this project. Many of the modern consumer products contain polymers, yeah. So, for instance, if you have a fabric softeners and you see the commercials, “ah, my laundry is smelling after seven days still like it was freshly cleaned”, and this already tells you that the perfume is encapsulated, yeah. And indeed a major load you find in drinking water, then in fishes, of microplastic is coming from the washing process and the laundry process. So encapsulation has to be replaced by something biological and biodegradable. And this is again exactly where the food lab can set in. Because, of course, instead of encapsulating a perfume, we are encapsulating an oil. It could be olive oil or sunflower oil. It has to have the right polarity, there’s a number of oils available, and this is the model for it. The water is water and then the encapsulation process, this is something you have to solve with the kitchen process. So it’s essentially making whipping cream, yeah, making a mayonnaise by using mechanical stirrers, but applying the right stabilizer. And now you will tell me a good stabilizer is egg yolk, for instance, it contains lecithin for making mayonnaise…

B: Yeah, that’s actually true.

MA: So the first food idea would be, indeed: take the perfume, take the water, take egg yolk, and try to make an encapsulated, yeah, encapsulated perfume. The encapsulation in egg yolk is then lecithin and, of course, the proteins sitting on the surface between oil and water, and this is called a suspension stabilizer, yeah, this is classic, yeah. Then you go to the people and say, “no, no, no, we don’t really want to have food in our cleaning products”, yeah, “we also want to have the product vegan”, so egg is not possible and the structure we take at the moment is nanocellulose. Nanocellulose is, of course, cellulose but it’s an object as big as a protein and it’s super highly surface-active. So if I teach a chemist what nanocellulose, how amphiphilic it is, it’s really like a cyclodextrin: it has polar and unpolar side, and because of that recipes with nanocellulose are incredibly stable, whereas the product is considered biologically inert, yeah. Bad news also – you and me cannot digest cellulose, yeah. But others can, microbial can. And this is why the stuff, of course, will degrade, yeah. So indeed going practically in a big, big, big market as a cosmetic and cleaning. A laundry agent market is incredibly big and replacing their current chemical solutions by biological solutions, avoiding food is a food lab project.

B: Okay, okay. So in that kind of project, you’re just you make the stuff different? So the encapsulation technique here is just different? You make it biologically as opposed to chemically?

MA: We take a recipe, which is a chemical recipe, we turn it first into a food recipe, or food like recipe, and then, of course, in addition, we’re using optimized instruments, yeah. Because you don’t need ultra stirrers, indeed, there’s so many emulsion preparation in the lab for mayonnaise and so on. And these stirrers, if you look very carefully of a typical stirrers box, you get provided with professional kitchenware is much more than you have in the lab. Yeah, so the typical stirrer you get supported but be aware that a broom for whipping cream is much more optimized for the problem than anything you can have in the lab, which is one fault.

B: Yeah, yeah. Wow, but so, you know, the first project you talked about was furniture and now we’re all the way to cosmeceuticals, basically. So it’s just such a huge range of different projects that you have going. How many people do you have in the lab?

MA: Okay, so colloid chemistry is a transversal discipline. So we don’t work with inorganic or organic, or biologic, chemistry. Our science is about the small length scale. So everything what we do is between one and hundred nanometer and it’s about interfaces, yeah. So be aware that food and furniture is not really different. Except, of course, at the final product. But all the building blocks are the same, yeah. So for us, it’s a rather cohesive body of projects I was describing to you because we need the same set of instruments, we work on the same type of problems, it’s just that your way of aligning things by starting letters, for instance, is one way to align things, yeah. And if you ask me wow there’s so many names with an “a” how you can handle them? Then I tell you yeah it’s the way how you do science, yeah. We think it’s all the same and, indeed, my people: I have around 70 people, it’s a typical Max Planck group size, yeah.

B: Yeah, but not everyone works in the kitchen lab, I’m assuming?

MA: About, meanwhile, the kitchen lab is, like, an NMR lab, a facility. It’s not that you really do a PhD in your kitchen lab. But as all the people are going through NMR, one or later in a project, all people go to a scale-up problem or formulation problem. And you can book the catch in the kitchen lab as you book FDIR or animal. If I call it “kitchen” lab – it’s really a facility. It’s the kitchen facility. I don’t even have, if you look carefully on the internet, a group leader on that. Because it’s not the way to align it, yeah. But everyone is going there. And it’s so much fun, yeah. The social dimension is, of course, we make pizza there, too, yeah. There are pizza battles and everything. After work hours, of course.

B: Yeah, okay. So it’s like, you know, everyone just works in your lab on normal projects but then sometimes you might have to go to the kitchen lab to make something?

MA: That’s the way the lab is organized, exactly. No one should have only fun, yeah, but sometimes to have fun, even if you have a hard synthetic project, is not bad at all. It’s about energy, balance, and making us happy as chemists.

B: Yeah, okay. Well, then because actually also what I was curious about was: where you publish papers related to the kitchen lab? Whether it’s still in like peer-reviewed journals that only scientists can access, basically? Or whether you publish texts that are also accessible for the general public and understandable to the general public?

MA: Oh, now you put your finger at the right place, yeah. We publish in peer-reviewed journals, of course. So it’s still, and if we call something, you can type in notations like “pasta catalysis” and you will find papers where we publish that. I once had the plan to also pick up much more people from social space via social media, but the point is I need a young person to do so because I’m so distant to these modern times as it could be that it always stays a nice plan but… so I should have to hire, I would have to hire a person really being good in social media and it would be a revolution. I can tell you because people, it’s interactive, of course, so I think there would be a lot of requests coming from the outside world. Because really it gives chemistry a positive face. So if we have young people, they always go into the kitchen lab, yeah. Because this is what they can tell others about: how they do their chemistry, yeah. But fear my own time account is not big enough, yeah, to also fear such a massive social media operation, which presumably would rely on a full person, full-time.

B: Yeah. Yeah, I was just curious because, obviously, you only use like kitchen apparatus, I think that the way you explain the science can actually be done in an easier way, than if you explain the science going on in like an actual lab because then you have to be explaining techniques that people don’t even understand. So it’s actually it’s like a great way to engage the general public in science as well. But have you thought about, like, I don’t know writing a book on what you do?

MA: Yeah, we are back to the problem of being a Max Planck director. I think you know it from your own boss. So my week already has about 60 hours, I have social interests, I have a wife, yeah. The point is: these are the things, and I start the conversation like that, you dream of once you’re a retired person, yeah. Because, as indeed, the Kohlenforschung, we have very social institute, so elder people, of course, have to give back their resources because the younger generation waiting. But I fear, will be not kicked out for the next 10 years. As long as I’m productive and do something meaningful. And this is, of course, what I’m hoping for. I have big dreams of writing a book about the history of chemistry and, of course, kitchen chemistry book. I think it would be opened even open access into, it’s not about making money or having a printed piece, it’s really to reach people. And these are the things, with my occupation, you dream of once you’re retired because then you can fill your years without too serious work, yeah, and doing something meaningful with chemistry without being in the way of young people.

B: Yeah. Yeah, no that makes a lot of sense. So, going back to the project,s because I’m just really interested in all the projects that you’re going and I think you have even more than what you’ve just said?

MA: Yeah, hundreds and hundreds.

B: So honestly, I’m really interested in knowing all of them that you do. I saw on your website, you also mentioned, there was something about like pea protein extraction?

MA: Yes.

B: So maybe we can talk about that one?

MA: But here we are now we’re already very close to food and this makes it look, maybe less, maybe more interesting. So pra protein is the big hope. So if you go throughout our nutrition habits, I think we agree that all of us should eat less meat, yeah. Being really vegan is difficult, as you might know, yeah, because there’s so many things we only find into in other food than vegetables, that’s difficult to have a healthy nutrition. But this is something where chemistry can indeed help a lot. And pea protein meanwhile is a commonplace. There are vegan burgers from pea protein, so pea protein, pea is one of the vegetables which has the highest protein content. So pea, you can, in principle, cover your complete protein need from pea. And this is, of course, is wonderful. However, the current way to produce it creates a protein which is extremely bitter and which has absolutely no relation to food.

B: So what’s the current way to produce it?

MA: The current way is standard protein separation in biotechnical means. The final product, you can buy it in, indeed, lifestyle shops, as a bag of pea protein. And this is indeed the point where also we start, we leave all the industrial in extraction of pea to those guys who already do it. It’s a new protein, of course. But then you have a rock-solid powder which, when you put it in the mouth, gives a sense of dryness and bitterness, yeah. So it’s nothing you would really enjoy to eat, yeah. And now, the whole production process from pea protein to the hamburger is full of chemical sensations. And indeed, it’s one of the biggest markets. And we get a lot of site money for projects from that so I have to be a little careful what we produce. So be aware that, for instance, the big problem of such a vegan burger is that it contains no iron. And it would be the chance to have iron also into vegan and vegetarian food. So what people do, now I’m careful, is really, they take for instance iron lactate. And it gives you exactly the sensation you need because you melt the crystal throughout grilling, yeah. The vegan beef turns rose, instead of greenish gray, yeah. Greenish gray is an awful color because Augen essen mit in german, yes, so you want to have the right sensation, the right taste, the right haptics, yeah. And you do, indeed, by adding exactly this, so to say, iron bleeding, iron iii compound, yeah. Which is good, of course, then, for your iron nutrition. But the other side gives the sensation of beef, which ends up in a slight rose tone throughout baking. The second thing is, if you chew a hamburger there’s texture. Texture means it’s not a homogeneous material. This would taste and as götterspeise or, indeed, a piece of fruit. No, it’s a fibrous material so what we have to introduce is the right viscosity and rheology of pea protein. And you do, indeed, either by adding plantar fibers, because these are the fibers which make the biting resistance considering a steak is perfect, so be aware that one part of the eating sensation is the mechanical analysis by tooth, yeah. So if you don’t have the right resistance, you will not like it. And so on and so on. And this is, of course, is done by extruding to the pea protein, to little spaghettis, yeah, these are then of course cooked and then you get something which looks like a meat fiber, which is a protein fiber but you have to make the powder to fiber, yeah. Then, the worst indeed is that you have to be able to bake it, yeah. Because, usually, if you formulate now your pea protein, in chemistry, heating up reduces viscosity. So be aware that if you heat up a burger, you still can touch with your hands to 100 degrees, create soup, yeah, so it melts, so to say. This is a sensation you don’t want to have. So you have to control, indeed, the rheology. This is, for instance, done by something which precipitates at higher temperature, yeah. And if you look very carefully, the current solution is carboxymethyl cellulose for this operation. So you have 10% weight, 10% … in current vegan burgers. Just because of this ability that the rheology and elevated temperatures has to be correct. To replace that by a food operation is a job for a colloid chemist who is able to cook. Because no one wants to have … in a vegan burger. It’s vegan in a strict sense, of course, but it’s still … . And these are the typical jobs we are doing, but here I stay a little away, because solutions, other guys pay science because they want to have a market, yeah. And this is complex also in law questions. But this is the challenge. I can describe the challenge: to make really a vegan unburger, to go through all the steps that you cannot distinguish it from a meat burger. And this is what the people in the very end want, yeah. It’s a lot of science work, rheology, chemistry work, yeah. Only a person with a sense for cooking can solve.

B: And so those are also kind of projects that are taking place?

MA: Yeah, many like that, indeed. So indeed, it turns slowly back to food. So there is a food line in that. But again, as an institute, we always have to take care that’s about interfaces and you know, colloid, it’s our texture, dispersion, two-phase systems. Because otherwise, we should not do it.

B: Yeah, do you also have any projects, like, in the field of pharmaceuticals?

MA: This is a sensitive issue because here we come to a legal taboo, yeah. So in the very end, as an organic chemist, you always dream of making an active pharmaceutical. But the hurdle to bring it to the people is very high, yeah. So we have the food and drug administration, so I tell you there at least three clear clinical trials. And really bringing a super active compound to the market is 150 million euro at the moment. And, of course, many years to wai: eight years, ten years, yeah. And this is something we tried to avoid. And you already said this: there’s something like “cosmeceuticals”, nutriceuticals. And this is the niche of the whole operation because everything, which was already traditionally applied, yeah, you’re allowed to continue to apply. So if you know that, for instance, peppermint tea is good for your health, there will be no three-stage food and drug operation here, because it’s traditional knowledge, yeah. Any cosmetics, which would work anti-aging cream, would be forbidden because it’s then a pharmaceutical. Only when this anti-aging cream has either no activity or the activity is made on natural compounds, then you’re allowed to use it without the longish process. And this is where, indeed, we and the kitchen lab are: we do pharmaceuticals, but we call in cosmeceuticals or nutrinomics, of course, because we try to understand traditional knowledge, how the stuff acts, yeah, and then really bring it into recipe by, for instance, creating, indeed, a cream, also a young person’s, yeah. Which simply, sort of, say, blocks the UV radiation and keeps the skin, in the very end, wet because already it was done like that maybe a thousand years ago, yeah. And this is something, where we are heavily active. So identifying these molecules is a clearly pharmaceutical operation, yeah. And you take, for instance, a TCM, traditional Chinese medicine recipe and you know that malaria agents are coming from Beifuß, from artemisia something, yeah. And this was first described in a recipe by a medical doctor of the Chinese emperor, and then the lady, the Chinese lady got a Nobel Prize for identifying it as a molecule and bringing it into modern malaria cure. And there’s a number of these things. There are super strong anti-cancer agent in the Taiwanese camphor tree, and making a cooking recipe indeed with camphor tree, and trying, first, to follow the molecules but develop, for instance, a tea recipe, which maybe, acid TCM medicine, could support healing processes. This is a big thing. So yes, we are playing with a number of things. The story I can tell is the one of rheaume, there is something called Brennnessel Erde. So what’s Brennnessel in English, you can help me?

B: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know.

MA: Okay, it’s an itching… itching sting. But there is a recipe coming, indeed, from medieval times, where you take this itching plant, you put it into a linen bag and you put it below earth for one year. And the reason there is, of course, fermentation by the soil. So everything, which is, so to say, plant, is degraded and what is left, we already know, is the phenol fracture. And phenols, of course, are very active compounds. Many hormones are phenols, of course, because phenols rather strongly bind all your nano mole concentration to specific and unspecific targets. So the trick is, indeed, to make a Brennnessel recipe or an itching plant recipe, which we then, really try to transfer into a Rheuma Salbe, so rheumatic, yeah, care, which is just based on natural. Land it’s about phenol extraction, this isolation of phenols, very similar to the resveratrol. And if you then go back, indeed, to the legal limits, yeah. Then, you see, indeed, all these fennels have a daily allowance of 15 gram per day. So you can eat up to 15 gram of resveratrol a day because the 15 grams, this is the legal limit for any chemical, even salt, yeah. So it means, it’s essentially inert but has a positive action, which is an anti-oxidation. In case of the rheumatics, rheumatism infection, yeah. It’s, indeed, it’s the bacteriocyte action of phenols, which is well known from wood plates. So if you cut cheese, you do it on wooden plate, the kitchen, cheese or meat in the kitchen, you do on wooden plate because the wooden plate is auto disinfecting. So on a wooden plate, indeed, bacteria do not grow, contrary to glass and metal plates. And this is why we still cut meat on wooden plates because it’s a sterile solution, yeah. And this is, of course, is a concept, again, you can transfer to many parts because antibacterial surfaces antibacterial creams obviously have an importance. And it’s not always organic chemistry which will solve the problem, especially in the kitchen space where you don’t want to eat the strong disinfectants, you rather prefer mild disinfectants based on a plant.

B: Yeah. Yeah, and so, like, you mentioned that what’s interesting is that you find out what compounds are important and then you find ways how to either extract them or use them? Then, so do you have people that do the research also beforehand to know what projects we should…?

MA: Good question. A Max Planck Institute usually is highly organized. So we have, yeah, at our institute, we about 430 people. And of course, this cannot be done in a single department. So we have one department which really goes to bone and wood, which is mechanical engineering. And we have another department, which is organic chemistry, which is Peter Seeberger. And peter Seeberger is one of the leading german guys in medical chemistry. So, of course, for his even standard, organic in-house projects, he has all the analytical skills, multi-dimensional NMR for natural compounds, but also all these HPLC MS, GCMS, derivatization GCMS tools you need for exactly these molecules. So we can take profit simply from the existence of an infrastructure of the Max Planck Society. We, ourselve,s are not very well-trained organic chemists or analytical chemists but we have these guys directly side by side. And this, of course, is the special phenomena Max Planck Institute – that is really usually rather broad and you can touch by a single conversation a whole range of disciplines.

B: Yeah, yeah.

MA: So it’s not a food lab in schule, it’s not a food lab in a michelin star restaurant, it’s a food lab in a Max Planck Institute.

B: Yeah, and it’s not even just a food lab it’s just yeah just using kitchen techniques but, in the end, you don’t just do food, you barely do any food.

MA: Yes, but if you would restrict yourself by a box, I think this is not how science should be nowadays. Food and not food is edibility but food and non-food can look very similar, yeah. Only that it has no nutrinomical value, of course. There’s no calories you can assign to it. But even that, I fear to say is turning into food. Because 80% of the stuff you can buy for, well, obese people, of course, all these additives for nutrition filling your stomach – this is not food, this is chemistry.

B: Yeah, exactly, so actually when I first just came across the kitchen lab, I thought maybe it was more going to be research on like additives because that is just food chemistry. But it’s not. You do different things.

MA: It’s not. And again, choosing the way of, for instance, lecithin, you know that the biggest market nowadays outside of pharmacy is lecithin because lecithin allowed the formulation of the mRNA, yeah. It deliver it. So be aware that the whole mRNA project we had throughout corona was essentially driven by food chemistry, yeah, because we can make liposomal formulations, as we did in the past, of course, yeah. And lecithin is either in soybeans, of course, mostly in soybeans, and in egg yolk, yeah, but it’s the traditional solution of nature for delivery problems. So I fear to say that even not naming that “food chemistry” or “food lab chemistry”, it has arrived to the deepest problem, and it is already practically a skill as a formulation person you have to have, yeah. And as there’s no drug at the moment without formulation, yeah, I fear making molecules and bringing them to the right target in the near future will have exactly the same value, yeah.

B: I just, you mentioned lectin, so, like, do you have any projects that deal specifically with maybe lectin extraction or the use of lectin?

MA: Now, here I have to say no. Indeed, the whole range is so broad that we tried to fix ourselves to the some simple things and simple things indeed. Again, I would call myself a rather polyphenol guy than a protein guy, yeah. Because proteins many many people are there and it’s it’s a known and rich chemistry, you have to make decisions. So I take the stuff other people’s don’t want to do. And phenols are nasty this is the point, yeah. I mean, now in colloid and interface science, they stick on everything, yeah. So they oxidize very rapidly because they are antioxidants, yeah. But come on, I can turn around the interview and say: now that you have talked to me for 45 minutes, yeah, I give you one of the biggest problems of Society and you tell me how to solve it.

B: Oh, okay.

MA: It’s, indeed, the idea of methylparaben. Yeah, you know methylparaben is one of these molecules which is in practically everything you use, yeah. And it’s a no-go anymore. Methylparaben is a phenol and the other side, so it’s a 4-hydroxybenzoic acid methyl ester. This is the methylparaben. And there different chain lengths in the ester group. Methylparaben is indeed endocrine-disruptive again, yeah. But you need it because, otherwise, you could not sell a cosmetic cream, yeah. So you add it as an antioxidant when using phenol oxidation as a sacrificial oxygen sink to keep the cream clean. And the product, of course, formed then is chinon, at the end. And so it’s not very dangerous. How you would replace, indeed, methylparaben in all pharmaceutical recipes?

B: Well, that’s a great question but I wouldn’t…

MA: Well, the answer is: to give me a phenol with similar reduction power. Which is natural, of course, and which is in all food. And, for instance, I can tell you vanillin is such a molecule. So vanillin is a perfect replacement, resveratrol is such a compound, yeah. So all these structures are proven part of food, yeah. And again, I hope you’re not going too much to Starbucks but vanillin is a part of Starbucks products. If you take a vanilla-flavored, yeah, coffee, you have quite a lot of that inside. And it means it’s allowed, it’s food-allowed, yeah. So, indeed, this type of thinking: it’s more thinking, it’s software, yeah, will allow you indeed rather rapidly to get rid of all the nasty stuff in the things we use today and replace it because we’re chemists, of course, by stuff taken from nature and known to be inert.

B: I really like that. I really like just, like, the approach of finding what molecules you should replace. So identifying them first and then, in the kitchen lab, with simple techniques, knowing how to get these replacement chemicals. And then I guess you might have to go into the actual chemistry lab to find ways to introduce the new chemical entities?

MA: Of course. I don’t pretend that indeed kitchen lab can replace anything. It will neither replace organic chemistry in the lab nor industrial chemistry, which has to be done in, of course, noble steel reactors, which are closed and are rather optimized. I told you, it’s a new tool and it’s a tool really bridging the worlds of molecules and the world of industrial production. So it really meets a niche, innovation niche, where people can even think practically, yeah. So I’m quite sure that you’re coming from one of the groups where the other side is taught, but believe me many young synthetic persons, chemists don’t have a real clue how application works. Because it’s, indeed, a distant continent, yeah, which you hardly even have seen, yeah. And to have this as a part of your education, to think already in terms of application is I think nothing bad even for the most academic synthetic person, yeah. And this is where the kitchen lab is.

B: Yeah. So where do you see the kitchen lab in the next 10-20 years?

MA: I see it as an invasive franchising structure, to be very brutal, yeah. We will not make money with it but you have to show it once, that it works. You have to set up rules, there are rules, there are safety rules, we are also living in an administrative world so we have to really guarantee what is done and what is not done. But once you have this content, this software content, you can start to share. So, indeed, one of my projects is to go viral, yeah. And well, virality is defined by others, but at least to offer the virus, yeah, that people can really just look at it make a more detailed description. But obviously, this will have to wait for my retirement because until then Max Planck Society is controlling my daily life by, well, also very many pleasurable administrative duties. And from the day where I’m free again, yeah, then I can do these things. But I would say: it will go viral. It’s simply such a pleasant concept that as long as you’re doing, well, indeed, consumer product-related issues, material issues, even pharmaceutical chemistry, yeah, you can formulate your own drug in a way that it’s really useful. Because, as you know, yeah, the drug is just one component of the tablet. There’s so many others yeah, which you don’t know about, that you can start to understand and explore that.

B: Yeah, and I guess the way that the kitchen lab grows is just – it grows with what gets developed on the market?

MA: Yes. I can tell you that we already have the first industrial construction and I’m very proud of that, yeah. So one of the leading fragrance and flavor producers Firmenich.

B: Yeah, Switzerland!

MA: Genetic-based company. They are already having a food toolbox. Yeah. And it came by infection, yeah, this is a virus, a viral infection from this institute.

B: Wow, and why is it so beneficial for them to have it?

MA: For all the reasons we were talking about, yeah. Because, indeed, you can do scale ups, yeah, you can do naturals. And of course, if you think about fragrance and flavors, you don’t want to have hardcore polychlorophenol chemistry in the fragrance.

B: Yeah, that’s actually true, yeah.

MA: Automatically, you end up with things, which, in principle, you can even digest, yeah. You will be pleased about the perfume which penetrates your skin and not kills your liver, yeah?

B: Yeah.

MA: And this was not the case for a long time, you have to know. So the famous “‘nitrobenzene in a deodorant” problem, yeah, we had 10 years ago was a classical mistake, where people misunderstood, yeah, indeed, where all the stuff will end up – namely, in your liver. You take a perfume: half of it you smell, half of it penetrates your skin, to simplify it, and 60% ends up in the liver, yeah. And then, of course, it has to be degraded.

B: Wow, that was actually really fascinating, knowing that Firmenich is also thinking about this.

MA: But they have a food lab. And literally, they do very similar things. And as they are professionals, of course, they are doing even more than we are doing, but they’re doing it very well, yeah.

B: Wow, okay, well, this was a really really interesting conversation. Thank you a lot for your time! And yeah, I’m looking forward to see how it all progresses and if the kitchen lab goes viral.

MA: Well, me too. I’m looking forward to that, too. It was a pleasure to talk to you!

B: Yeah, hopefully, this podcast will also help get the information out there about the kitchen lab.

MA: It will, it will believe me.

B: Yeah, okay, thank you! Bye!

MA: Thank you! Bye-bye!

B: That’s it, thank you all so much for listening! If you would like to learn more about professor Antonietti’s work, please visit the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces website. And if you like our podcast make sure to follow us on our Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram page – this is the best way to stay up to date when a new podcast will be released. Thanks again for listening! Bye!

Offspring Magazine the Podcast is brought to you by the Max Planck PhDnet Science Communication Group, known as the Offspring magazine. The intro-, outro- music is composed by Srinath Rankumar. And the pre-intro jingle is composed by Gustavo Carrizo. Give any feedback, comments, or suggestions, please feel free to write us at Until next week! Stay safe, stay healthy, bye!
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