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The Science Of Hot: This Sauce Is So Fiery It Comes Wrapped In Jet Engine Supermaterial

Tomas Kellner
April 28, 2016
Earlier this year, GE and Thrillist tapped the hot sauce maker High River Sauces to brew them a hellishly hot sauce spiced up with flakes of the Carolina Reaper and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the planet’s two hottest peppers. GE then made a special packaging for the sauce from silicon carbide — one of the toughest materials in the world, which is also the key building block for a heat-resistant supermaterial called ceramic matrix composites (CMCs). GE puts CMCs inside the hot sections of the latest jet engines and gas turbines.
Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 6.26.15 PM GE and Thrillist's 10X32K (Kelvin) hot sauce. At this temperature, physics starts to go haywire. Image credit: GE

The partners then sold a limited run of 1,000 sauces exclusively on Thrillist on Monday. It evaporated almost immediately. (You can still win a bottle from a special stash.)

But the Sriracha people need not worry — GE isn’t trying to gobble up their business. The company used the fiery stunt to draw attention to heat-resistant materials that make its machines work better and more efficiently. Readers who took Thermodynamics in college know that heat is energy. The hotter GE’s engines can run, the more work they can extract. A clean, high-temperature burn also generates fewer emissions.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 5.46.57 PM A thermal image of a human tester before hot sauce consumption. Image credit: GE

To prevent the machines from melting, however, GE scientists spend a lot of time developing new materials like CMCs — which took them 20 years. They are testing materials that can handle the 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit inside a jet engine. That’s so hot that even the Carolina Reaper would become ash in a fraction of a second. The scientists are also building new sensors that allow them to measure temperature more precisely. One researcher even found clues to a better thermometer in butterfly wings.

On Monday, they turned their tools at guests testing the super sauce and measured changes in their temperatures. Predictably, most of them got hotter on their cheeks and forehead. But strangely, their noses got colder. Take a look.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 5.47.31 PM A thermal image of the same subject 21 minutes after consumption. The average facial temperature rose by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, but the nose remained relatively cold. Image credit: GE

Silicon carbide takes the best features from diamond, one of the toughest materials in the world, and combines them with the properties of silicon, which is inside every computer and every smartphone. As a result, it can be used for CMCs, but also for power electronics that can handle very high temperatures. “SiC can more efficiently handle higher voltages and manage three times the amount of energy compared to silicon chips,” says Danielle Merfeld, global technology director at GE Global Research. “Suddenly you can run everything from locomotives to planes and wind farms faster, hotter and more efficiently.”

Sic15 GE makes SiC chips called MOSFETs – metal-oxide semiconductor field effect transistors. They help manage power inside machines and can handle temperatures as high as 200 degrees Celsius (392 Fahrenheit), where ordinary silicon would fail. Image credit: GE Reports/Chris New

GE scientists have been working on CMCs for two decades. These “superceramics” are as tough as metals, but they are also two-thirds lighter and can operate at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit — 500 degrees higher than the most advanced alloys. This combination allows engineers to design lighter components for engines that don’t need as much cooling air, generate more power and burn less fuel. GE engineers believe that CMCs could allow designers to increase jet engine thrust by 25 percent and decrease fuel consumption by 10 percent by 2020.

CMCblade A CMC blade from a jet engine. Image credit: GE Reports/Adam Senatori

Parts made from nickel-based superalloys play a key role inside the world’s most powerful gas turbine, the 9HA. They must handle heat and titanic pressures and also resist oxidation. These materials also work in the world’s largest jet engine, the GE9X, which GE Aviation just started testing in Peebles, Ohio. Like CMCs, these alloys exemplify the GE Store, the idea that different GE businesses can use the same technology.

greenville10_extra_large GE Power's gas turbine factory in Greenville, South Carolina, is the largest in the world. Image credit: GE Reports/Chris New

Scientists at the GRC are also using the science of the very small — nanotechnology — and the science of light — photonics — to mimic the properties of the jagged, treelike scales on the wings of butterflies from the Morpho genus. They use their findings to develop fast, ultrasensitive thermal and chemical imaging sensors that could have applications in night-vision goggles, supersensitive surveillance cameras, and handheld and wearable medical diagnostic devices.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 6.13.44 PM The ridges on the wings of Morpho butterflies change shape and color when exposed to heat and chemicals. Image credit: GE Global Research

But it’s not just heat that keeps GE researchers busy. One team used a special magnetic material to achieve temperatures cold enough to freeze water (and chill beer). The breakthrough system, which is projected to be 20 percent more efficient than current refrigeration technology, could be inside your fridge by the end of the decade. The system uses a water-based fluid flowing through a series of magnets to transfer heat, rather than a chemical refrigerant and a compressor. This significantly lowers any harm to the environment and makes the recycling of old refrigerators simpler.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 6.11.12 PM The new cooling system uses a water-based fluid flowing through a series of innovative magnets to transfer heat, rather than a chemical refrigerant and a compressor. Image credit: GE Reports

A cold beer would pair well with the hot sauce. Since GE also built a custom-made, computer-controlled barbecue pit, how about opening a science-themed restaurant next? Cheers to that.