Experiments at Home #1 - "The Skillet Mystery"
    By Lee Bishop | February 18th 2012 04:38 PM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Lee

    I am a Ph.D. chemist (University of California-Berkeley, 2010), and currently research environmental nanotechnology at the University of Wisconsin...

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    In my ever-continuing quest to become an actual adult, I have recently begun to cook. I use a real oven and everything!

    In my usual encounter with the oven it takes just a few minutes of pre-heating before I realize that I have yet again left the big skillet inside. Panicked, I pull it out of the oven, and notice something weird! Finally I decided to repeat the skillet-in-the-oven experiment and document my findings. Here we go!

    Step #1--observe the condition of the skillet before its trip into the oven.

    Step #2--place the skillet in the oven.

    Conducting experiments gets me super psyched!

    Step #3--turn the oven temperature up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and set the kitchen timer to 3 minutes. Note: experimental conditions chosen semi-arbitrarily.

    Step #4--remove the skillet from the oven and observe its condition.

    Observation #1: The skillet is cool to the touch.
    Observation #2: It's covered in water!!!!

    If you're not convinced, here is a before and after shot.

    Water has clearly condensed on the pan after its 3 minute trip into the pre-heating oven.

    After a few times seeing this same thing, I finally stopped to ask myself, "Why in the hell is this skillet covered in water???" Got any guesses for what's going on?

    Here's my hypothesis. Ovens create heat by burning natural gas, which is composed primarily of methane. When methane is burned it produces carbon dioxide and WATER:

    The same thing happens when any other hydrocarbon (gasoline, diesel, propane, etc) is burned. This is why you sometimes see water coming out of the exhaust pipe of cars.

    So the oven flame was producing water, but why does it coat the skillet? Well, after only 3 minutes in a pre-heating oven the skillet was still cool to the touch. So, when the water vapor from the hot hot flame came into contact with the cool skillet, it lost enough heat to turn back into liquid water. Kapow! Wet skillet!

    Mind you this is just my hypothesis, but I'm fairly certain its correct. Actually proving something in a scientifically rigorous manner is my day job and is painstaking work, so I prefer to spend my free time in "hypothesis wonderland." Welcome to my secret place!

    Any skeptics out there, feel free to offer alternative hypotheses (dragon juice? unicorn blood?).


    Here is proof: you assumed that all ovens produce condensation. My oven is electric and does not produce condensation. A broader field of investigation may narrow the potential outcome, it's all in the design of the experiment...

    Lee Bishop
    Excellent suggestion, you read my mind! Stay tuned for the next post, I think you'll find it interesting!
    I've pointed out to others that a gas range also causes your kitchen to warm up(venting exhaust fumes) much more than an electric oven.
    Never is a long time.
    Experiments at Home, I have another one for you to smile about, open up a couple of cans of cold pop (soda for you neanderthals not from the midwest), get 2 glasses of ice right out of the freezer, rinse the ice in one glass with water (and then pour the water off), and fill both glasses with said pop.

    The results are a fizzy surprise ;)
    Never is a long time.
    Lee Bishop
    That sounds like an awesome experiment.  I'm guessing the non-rinsed ice causes lots more bubbling due to greater surface area????  Can't wait to find out.  Thanks!
    I've attributed it to nucleation points :)

    And you know those frosted glasses you get your beer in............
    Never is a long time.