Designing the Perfect Cup of Coffee

What do Organic Chemistry and Materials Physics have to do with designing the perfect cup of coffee and avoiding cancer of the esophagus? Apparently everything, as an exciting new invention from the Trent Centre for Biomaterials Research is proving. The invention has led to a new product, the Prolong Travel Mug™, which is being officially launched at the Student Centre at 3:30 pm on December 1, 2017, just in time for the Holiday Season. The Trent community, particularly students interested in commerce and science, is invited.

The Prolong Travel Mug™ rapidly reduces the temperature of hot beverages to a comfortable and safe 65°C within minutes, and maintains the temperature of the beverage in the “perfect” temperature range of 65°C to 50°C for several hours. The World Health Organization advises that hot drinks, consumed at temperatures above 65°C, can lead to cancer of the esophagus. For example, most coffee dispensed by coffee shops are sold at 75°C. The Prolong Travel Mug™ reduces the temperature of 75°C coffee to 65°C in half a minute, and maintains the coffee in the perfect range for 3 hours! This is welcome news for most tea drinkers also, as tea is brewed between the temperatures of 74°C and 96°C, depending on the type of tea. Most coffee and tea drinkers are familiar with waiting for upwards of 30 minutes for their beverage to cool, then having to nuke it shortly after as it becomes too cold.

Prolong Travel Mug in classic stainless steel and Trent University green.

A new company was launched, owned by several Trent alumni and the researchers involved, called Phase Materials Inc. The Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) will be selling Trent-branded mugs at the Student Centre, and the TCSA will receive $5 for every mug sold. The company will also be selling their branded Prolong mugs via their website. The Trent Centre for Biomaterials Research assigned all the intellectual property behind the invention to Trent University, so that the University shall also receive royalties from sales of the company’s products.

The Science

The story began almost eight years ago, during a meeting with Trent Alumnus David Patterson (‘66), whose company, Northwater Capital, was at the time was engaged in commercialization of green technologies; Dianne Lister (’71), then VP of Advancement at Trent; Toney Story (’71), then Alumni Director; and Suresh Narine (’91), director of the Trent Centre for Biomaterials Research. Narine, then recently recruited from the University of Alberta, explained to David Patterson that the focus of the new Trent centre was on the design of new green sustainable materials from vegetable oils to supplant those currently made from petroleum. Patterson, who was very interested in energy storage technologies, challenged Narine to figure out how his materials can function as green, sustainable energy storage devices with defined life cycles.

Narine and members of his team, specifically graduate students Michael Floros (’15) and Michael Tessier (’14) began to look into how materials can store and release energy on demand. They focused on how the energy absorbed when a material changes phase (from solid to liquid or liquid to gas) can be stored and then released on demand if the phase of the material is reversed. Narine was cross appointed in the departments of Physics and Astronomy and Chemistry, while Floros completed a BSc. at Trent in Biochemistry and Tessier completed a BSc. at Trent in Physics. The team quickly realized that the challenges to make materials which functioned in this fashion could only be overcome by using a multidisciplinary approach. Tessier, who completed an MSc. in the Narine lab, focused on modeling the requirements of the materials – what temperatures of melt, for example, are required and how much energy can be stored in a given amount of a particular material. Floros, who completed a Ph.D. in the Narine lab, focused on how the materials could be synthesized from sustainable soybean oil, using green chemistry.

The team’s efforts led to the filing of three patents, focused on how these green and sustainable phase change materials (PCMs) can be produced from soybean oil and how they can be used in food and beverage containers and in compressed air energy storage. Work in the laboratory focuses on a myriad of ways in which to utilize this novel form of energy storage: harnessing low grade heat lost from homes and buildings, passively maintaining the temperature of the batteries powering electric vehicles, increasing the efficiency of compressed air energy storage applications, improving and reducing the cost of solar energy storage, etc.

Although the two Michaels are now graduated, MSc. student Navindra Soodoo and Ph.D. student Kosheela Poo Palam are continuing the work in the Trent Centre for Biomaterials Research.

Research from Prolong Travel Mug detailing “The Perfect Zone” for hot beverages and how its competitors stack up.
The Innovation

Even while pursuing technology solutions which could have a large impact on sustainable energy use, reduction of energy use and improvement in the efficiency of energy storage, the Michaels and Narine felt that this approach to energy storage could be utilized in more immediate and popular ways – in food and beverage temperature modulation. As with most innovation, serendipity played a role. Narine happened to be in hotel room in Toronto when CBC ran a prime time news story on the WHO’s warning on the carcinogeneity of hot beverages above 65°C, and the Prolong idea was born! The team still proudly showcases the first prototype that the Michaels produced in the laboratory – a very crude, rudimentary prototype which John Knight, Trent’s manager of corporate relationships, described as a 15-lb free-weight.

The team utilized one of the PCM invented from soybean oil in a triple-walled mug design: the outer liner of the mug is identical to most travel mugs and contains a vacuum. The middle liner, however, was filled with the PCM. The PCM rapidly absorbs the excess heat from hot liquids poured into the mug, cooling the liquid to a perfect 65°C. As this happens, the PCM in the middle liner converts from a solid to liquid state, thermodynamically absorbing and trapping heat from the mug’s contents and lowering its internal temperature. Later, as the beverage begins to cool, the process reverses: the PCM solidifies, and the stored heat is released back into the beverage, keeping it in the optimum temperature range.

The process of how Prolong Travel Mug uses phase change materials (PCMs) to keep beverages at an ideal drinking temperature.

By now, David Patterson had become a funder of the program and the research team naturally showcased the prototype to Mr. Patterson. Narine tells the story of how David, a tea drinker, was encouraged to drink hot piping tea out of the prototype, as him and the Michaels provided the latest update on the science. According to Narine, “We dragged out the presentation, so that David, who was visibly impressed with being able to immediately comfortably drink his tea without waiting the normal time for it to cool, could also realize that the tea maintained perfect drinking temperature range for hours.”

Floros recalls, “David’s eyes just kept getting wider and wider and after a while we realized he wasn’t paying attention to our presentation anymore, but that the prototype had captured all of his attention.”

David Patterson approached the group with an offer to invest in commercializing the technology, and Phase Materials Inc. was born. While the company is focused on bringing several other technologies revolving around phase change materials to the marketplace, Narine feels that the learning that his team was exposed to over the life-cycle of this project, from idea to prototype to investment attraction, dominant design and production, and commercial launch, has been invaluable to the Trent experience.

The Trent Centre for Biomaterials Research

The Trent Centre for Biomaterials Research has filed more than 30 patents within the past 8 years, all focused on green sustainable materials. With more than 100 publications published within the past 8 years, the Centre is proud that all of its intellectual property and publications have Trent undergraduates and graduate students as co-inventors and co-authors.