Saturday Morning Science Experiment: Meat Stick Blowtorch

UPDATE: Apparently, I missed that Xeni and BoingBoing Video had done this already back in April. You can check out that video, and get more information on the experiment, as performed by Popular Science columnist Theo Gray.

Saturday Morning Science Experiment continues on the vague food theme from last week, this time with a video demonstrating the energy (i.e. calories) stored in gas station-quality snack sausages. Naturally, eye protection is needed.

Tip of the hat to Ian Simmons, of the UK's Life Science Center, for suggesting this video! If you've got suggestions for upcoming Saturday Morning Science Experiment videos, send them my way!

Thumbnail photo courtesy Flickr user stallio, via CC. My apologies to readers outside the US, who may or may not get the reference.


  1. Interesting. Why a cucumber, I wonder?

    I’m not certain the energy is primarily being supplied by the tasty meat snacks however. See, the way an oxy-acetylene cutting torch works is: A hole is burned through the metal item to be cut using both oxygen and acetylene. Then the acetylene fuel supply is mostly cut off, and the cut continued using pure oxygen. The metal itself burning is what supplies the fuel, the torch is no longer supplying any heat, just super-charging the already burning portion of the metal. You can continue to cut right through steel plate over an inch thick with oxygen alone.

    So, once his cut is started it could be a low-calorie non-fat tofu (not so) tasty snack stick and it would cut his pan just as well. Which means this is not really a demonstration of the energy contained in the snack item.

  2. Because zucchinis are disgusting of course.

    This isn’t an accurate portrayal of how much energy is in it. I don’t see any antimatter.

  3. This is much, much cooler than when we set cashews on fire in high school to determine their caloric content.

  4. Gil 1) because vegetables are part of a healthy balanced diet and 2) try hanging on to three flaming meat sticks with *your* bare hands.

  5. This is similar to what BBC’s Bang Goes The Theory did when they made rocket fuel using toffee, peanuts and aluminium.

  6. Just to reiterate the constant criticism of these things:

    Thermal lances burn ____ at a really high temperature to cut things. The ___ is usually iron. The only thing these experiments do is swap out the Iron nozzle , which is what is burned, with food.

    It’s the HIGHLY FLAMMABLE Oxygen Gas that powers these lances that is cutting these things, NOT the food.

    The lance just creates the conditions at which something can be burned at a REALLY REALLY REALLY high temperature.

    1. Oxygen is not flammable.

      It helps other things burn, but in and of itself can not catch fire. All of the energy is coming from the sausage.

    2. Jonathan,

      Thanks so much! For the whole video I was racking my brain for the term Thermal Lance :)

  7. The food is the fuel, oxygen is the oxidant. Remove either and there is no combustion. If something will burn, and you throw pure oxygen at it really fast, it will burn really fast. Heat from the reaction melts the material being cut, and gas flow blows the melted material through the cut and out of the way of the torch, improving the effective cutting speed.

    1. “Burning” is a term applied to a relatively rapid chemical reaction in which one chemical, like carbon or iron or magnesium, undergoes an exothermic (gives off heat) bonding with oxygen, or oxidation. The atmosphere provides the necessary oxygen for burning in something like a campfire or candle. But atmospheric oxygen is only roughly 20% of the atmosphere. By using a tank of pure oxygen a person can significantly increase the speed of the reaction by raising the amount of oxygen available to react. By blowing oxygen across the chemical being oxidized, in this case the carbon in the meat sticks, it speeds the reaction up even more by removing the products of the oxidation reaction and allowing more oxidation reactions to take place.

      The warning labels are on the tank because of this property, not because the oxygen itself can be oxidized. If they are properly marked, it should contain the warning that it is an oxidizer.

  8. knodi; Burning is the adding of oxygen to flammable stuff. You *can* burn oxygen, to get ozone, I guess… but I think the “flammable” warning is just a simplification for warning purposes.

    The cucumber is to provide a cold wet wrapper which won’t easily burn through, at least until the water boils off.

  9. >
    > Where can I get goggles like that?

    Any welding supply store will sell them.

    They are so dark you can hardly see anything in a normally lit room. Once you light your oxy-acetylene torch up, then you can see. Those things are seriously bright. Can’t look at ’em with the naked eye.

  10. the Mythbusters salami rocket episode.

    Then rockets fueled with cheese may have reached the moon in times immemorial, which would explain everything!

  11. I’m still wondering….of all the references I haven’t understood in this post, which is the one I’ve missed because I’m outside the U.S.?

  12. I will add that references for plumbing pure-oxygen supply systems will warn against the use of grease on connector threads and the importance of keeping all the hoses squeaky clean. This is because in a pure oxygen environment, anything that can burn requires very little provocation to do so- grease, lint, even insects that may have wandered into an uncapped hose.

  13. Is it only me that wonders how many calories the average human contains and what one could destroy with a “human lance”? If that much energy is released from some Slim Jims, how much more spectacular would it be with a larger, albeit unwieldy, meat stick?

    Gruesome, yes. Intriguing, certainly.

  14. Dewi, no, you can’t ‘burn’ oxygen to ozone – ozone is significantly higher in energy than oxygen (which is why it’s a more powerful oxidant, which is why it’s toxic)

    And for the rest who are confused: Oxygen gas itself can’t ‘burn’. As said, it needs a fuel. By adding liquid oxygen to these sausages/cucumber, he’s making it burn _faster_. More energy being released in a shorter amount of time means more heat gets generated. But the _total_ amount of energy is the same as if you’d burned the sausages/cubumber in air.

    This is basic thermodynamics.

    1. Actually, burning is the process of oxidation, making the conversion from O2 to O3 – say, by adding energy with a high voltage arc – oxygen being oxidised :).

      And without the oxygen, the bacon alone would not maintain the steel at sufficient temperature. The oxygen allows more energy to be released by allowing the steel to combust.

  15. At first I didn’t notice the oxygen tube going into the bottom of the cucumber. I guess I’ll need more than a Bic lighter and lunch to bust of jail someday.

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