Meet the Physicist Making Coffee 40 Times More Powerful Than a Normal Cup

Monday December 17, 2018 Written by Ruby J Murray with photography by Carlie Armstrong

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One of the most important lessons you can learn in life, says Phil Broughton, is “piss somewhere new every day

Red headed and silver tongued, 38-year-old Broughton has eyes that snap and crinkle when he’s excited, which is most of the time. His stories segue into puns and political manifestos then make quick detours through the laws of physics. All before you can swallow your first sip of beer.

The founder of Funranium Laboratories, which he runs from a shed out the back of his home in Oakland, California, Broughton is a health physicist and radiation safety specialist at the University of California at Berkeley by day, and a modern mad scientist inventor after hours. He wears cranky old T-shirts, shoes with the separated toes, and has trouble growing the hair on the back of his hands after one too many singeings.

At the moment, the focus of Funranium Labs is on two flights of fancy: Black Blood of The Earth (BBoTE) and The Steins of Science. Or, coffee and beer steins. But not any coffee and not any steins. Broughton’s coffee is up to 40 times stronger than your average cup, and his beer steins have vacuumed walls that approach the pressure used by those in outer space. And both inventions were born out of seemingly insurmountable problems.

Broughton was born in Cape Canaveral, Florida, “in the same hospital the astronauts get sent to as part of the alien baby exchange program”. He describes his parents as “techno-gypsies”; competent, technically educated people who followed the semiconductor industry as it moved around America. The industry started on the space coast’ of Florida, where major chip manufacturers were making control systems for NASA rockets. When the semiconductor industry shifted to San Jose, California, it set in motion a tech community that would one day turn into Silicon Valley. The Broughton family went, too.

After graduating with a degree in physics, Broughton joined a tech startup that was building “lasers that could melt the back of a car”. This work led to a job at the South Pole Station in Antarctica, where Broughton began to do what he always does: absorb institutional knowledge, stick his curious fingers into every single pot, open every door. This same, endless curiosity landed him at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL) where he worked as a health and safety technician.

If that job title means anything to you, “then you are wiser than the Nazis and Joe Stalin combined, because it was specifically chosen to convey no information”, Broughton says. In short: LLNL is a nuclear weapons laboratory. Broughton was in charge of decon, demolition and safety support work. He has disassembled a nuclear bomb.

The problem in his life tha t would give rise to The Steins of Science was political, and political problems are best solved with beer. Black Blood of the Ear th’s genesis was personal. At just 33, Broughton was diagnosed with diabetes. At the time, he was commuting over two hours a day from Livermore to his new position at UC Berkeley and drinking around two litres of soda to power him through. With soda off the menu, he began to experience fiendish caffeine withdrawals. Coffee was too bitter for his sweet tooth to handle so he immediately began thinking of ways to get rid of that sharp edge. The answer was obvious: to build a scientifically designed cold extraction rig, using laboratory glassware headed straight to the dumpster. “A terrible waste in my opinion,” Broughton says, when asked about the lab glass. “Too beautiful to discard and even more tragic that it had never been used.”

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Broughton’s ‘secret’ extraction process can pump out 12 litres of coffee a day, and the results are smooth, sweet and delicious. Sort of floaty, very intense. With that much caffeine in his body, it’s no surprise the physicist is so productive and bloody-minded. “Caffeine would be more properly described as an attention drug hallucinogen rather than a stimulant,” he says. “Most hallucinogens are used to remove filters of perception. The point of caffeine, however, is not to remove filters but to add more so you can stay focused on the task at hand. Generally people who are drinking Black Blood report that they have lost track of time and gotten more shit done than they ever thought they could.”

The human body metabolises the caffeine in hot-brewed coffee into a drug called theophylline, which works in a similar way to an asthma puffer: it opens your bronchi, gets your heart racing and makes your fingers flutter. But Funranium Lab’s cold-brewing rig pulls a different set of chemicals out of the ground bean. “So you end up with the alertness quality of caffeine, without the jittery-as-hell of theophylline.”

While diabetes gave rise to the Black Blood of the Earth, The Steins of Science were a direct result of the 2008 economic downturn. Huge cuts were made to the California State education budget, which meant Broughton had fewer teaching hours and some time on his hands. It should come as no surprise by now that he is not very good at days off. “I was sitting in the kitchen in my underwear because a day without pants is a good day,” he explains. “What the hell do I do with myself? It’s just tacky to start drinking at 9.30 in the morning. And then I remembered that weekend was Oktoberfest.”

He went rummaging through his kitchen cupboards, but couldn’t find his earthenware stein. He did, however, find a two-litre Dewar vacuum flask, the kind labs use to hold liquid nitrogen and cryogenic liquids. Holding the flask, he thought: “I can make a beer stein out of that. And nine hours and quite a lot of blood later, I had one.”

If you can’t remember the three modes of thermal transfer from high school science, Broughton will explain them. Conduction is body-to-body heat transfer. Convection is the mass mixing of material: if you heat something up it rises, cold things fall, until it all swirls together and is the same temperature with fluids and gases. And lastly, there’s radiation; if you’re warmer than absolute zero, you’re constantly losing energy through the emission of light.

“The point of The Steins of Science is to minimise all three heat loss modes as much as possible,” Broughton explains. “In the walls of a Dewar, a sheet of borosilicate lab-grade glass is folded over on itself, creating an air gap between the two layers, which we then pull a hard vacuum on. The vacuum between the walls of a Steins of Science is somewhere around a ten millionth of an atmosphere of pressure. Not quite the pressure of the vacuum in outer space, but getting there.”

We all know how fast you have to drink a pint to stop it from turning into warm summer soup. The funny thing about The Steins of Science is that they make you drink a beer slower. Every sip is crisp and delicious, as the beer only loses roughly a third of a degree of temperature per hour. Pour a cold beer into a stein for lunch, come back to it at dinner, and you might not even notice the difference.

Broughton’s steins are all over the globe now; there’s even one in the hands of Canberra MP’s Chief of Staff. Funranium Labs is attracting a quirky community of enthusiastic people, including scientists, artists and writers (comic book writer Warren Ellis is a dedicated Black Blooder). But it’s not just the ice-cold beer and the mind-altering coffee that attract them; it’s Broughton’s particular form of science education through exploration, his blogs, his outreach, his infectious curiosity.

The idea behind pissing somewhere new every day, Broughton says, is that you never know where the search for a bathroom might take you. The world is full of closed doors. But we really should be opening them, because life is just more fun that way.

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This story appears in Smith Journal volume 9, with the headline ‘Black Blood of the Earth’.