You say Jell-O, a polymer scientist might say hydrogel.

Gelatin powder — when it is mixed with boiling water and cooled — becomes a polymer hydrogel.

That’s just one of the many ways polymer science relates to cooking and food processing.

Such connections are the focus of a new University of Akron honors course — Polymer Science of Cooking — aimed at introducing undergraduate students to the basic concepts of polymer science.

UA is home of an internationally known polymer science and polymer engineering college.

Hunter King, a UA professor of polymer science, and Michael Wilson, a fifth-year graduate student, cooked up the idea for the weekly class, which begins Thursday. It's a natural sciences colloquium in the Drs. Gary B. and Pamela S. Williams Honors College.

Common foods and cooking demonstrations will be used to illustrate the interaction of polymers, many small molecules linked together.

Jell-O is an example of a network of polymers, Wilson said, with all of the Jell-O molecules "stuck together in a three-D network."

Think of a fishing net, Wilson said. "If you pull on the net, all of the net comes with it." But the network of polymers in Jell-O "resists moving, but will deform."

It's called a hydrogel, as in water gel, because the gelatin network takes on these properties with the addition of water.

The class will learn that hydrogels are used to make contact lenses, among other medical devices.

"A lot of the game of cooking is manipulating of the polymers that food is made out of," said King, who joined UA in 2016 after doing postdoctoral research at Harvard University. "Bread making is rearranging gluten, a polymer."

When you fry an egg, he said, "it becomes a solid and it become opaque. Why does that happen? That's exactly the subject of polymer science."

Wilson said he cooks "quite a bit." A while back, he said, he began thinking about the connection of food to polymer science after reading some scientific journal articles.

Discussions with King, Wilson said, led to them saying, "We should make a class out of this."

Wilson, who received his undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is a fellow in UA's biomimicry fellowship program.

A final project of the Polymer Science of Cooking course will require students to design experiments around food to demonstrate principles they learned.



Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com.