A new study from the University of Reading has investigated the beneficial effects of fatty molecules that are created when cooking with oil; for example, in deep fat fryers. The researchers believe that the release of fatty molecules from the process may help to seed clouds, thus reflecting heat from the sun away from the Earth and bringing down global temperatures.

However, the scientists were quick to stress that their research is not intended to act as a platform for any attempts to use deep fat fryers in a geo-engineering sense. Rather, they hope the study (which was published in the journal Nature Communications) will simply shed light on the impact which cooking fats have on our environment.

Uncertain science

The term “atmospheric aerosols” covers a wide range of particles, from soot and desert dust to the gases which arise from chemical reactions. Though many of them reflect the light and heat of the sun away from the Earth’s surface, some simply absorb them both. They remain an uncertain science.

Scientists have suspected for some time that the combustion of oil can release fatty acidic molecules which travel into the atmosphere and coat these aerosols. However, little is known about the effect that such coating has in practical terms; the Reading study is intended to provide new analysis of this complex environmental matrix, allowing us to understand more about the effect that cooking has on the environment.

How it all works

Techniques which scientists use to profile the types and concentrations of atmospheric aerosols are becoming ever more sophisticated, and the University of Reading researchers utilised the innovative method of ultrasonic levitation to secure the aerosol droplets in place.

They then used X-rays and laser beams to analyse the chemical makeup of the samples and reveal their structure. “These self-assembled structures are highly viscous so instead of having a water droplet you have something that behaves much more like honey, so processes inside the droplet will slow down,” explained Dr Christian Pfrang, lead author on the paper. “They are resistant to oxidation so they stay around longer, so cloud formation will be easier.”

Geo-engineering not an option

Despite the fact that the fatty molecules may be having a beneficial effect on climate change, Dr Pfrang and his team were quick to dispel any suggestions that the deep fat fryer could prove to be a weapon in the fight against global warming.

The effect of the fatty acids is too negligible (and the effect of consuming fatty foods too damaging to health) for the idea of using them as a means of geo-engineering to gain any real traction. However, the study is intended to shine a light on a previously uncertain area of climate science, which could allow future generations to better understand how cooking affects the atmosphere.