Willy Wonka may have had flavoured wallpaper, a chocolate river and a three-meals-in-one dinner pill, but an American bioengineer has gone one better. Harvard professor David Edwards has created the world's first "breathable drinks machine". The Le Whaf, designed in collaboration with chef Thierry Marx, allows users to experience their favourite tipple without ever putting glass to lip.
"Le Whaf works by vaporising liquid poured into the bowl of the machine, creating a drinks cloud made of thousands of tiny 5 micron-sized particles," Edwards explains, "due to their size [a micron is one millionth of a metre], these remain in suspension in the air for almost a minute." Once in suspension, the vapour cloud is decanted into a glass which "breathers" then inhale through a straw. Although currently only set up to vaporise low-density versions of a martini, B52 and virgin Mary, Edward's aim is to tweak the design to create clouds of drink.
The prototype device, which is provisionally set for release in the autumn, is the latest in a long line of products to emanate from the scientist's culinary laboratory in Paris. Since opening its doors in 2007, La Laboratoire has created a series of "inhalable cuisines" which are delivered using a lipstick-sized plastic tube called Le Whif.
"While whaffing is about breathing wet particles, whiffing is about dry particles," says Edwards. The self-respirating plastic tubes, which cost £4.99 a pack at www.firebox.com, contain around 100mg of microscopically dispersed food molecules called colloids. These tiny particles are slightly bigger than their liquid counterparts but still at the low end of the micron range.
"The micro-engineering involved in creating the particles is complex, as you need to ensure the food particles are too large to get into the lungs but small enough to get into the air, so we were looking at a size range between 10 microns and several hundred, which is rather a lot," he says.
After "quite a lot of coughing", he hit upon the correct size range which was between 15-20 microns. Then he needed to ensure the colloid flavour membranes spread evenly across the tongue, rather than shooting on to the tonsils. "Although I had a background in medical aerosol design, when it came to product design it wasn't too helpful, as inhalers are specifically designed to deliver medicines to the back of the throat," says Edwards. "We had to turn the science around while keeping the design simple."
He finally settled on a squashed- cylinder shape with slits on the top and bottom side of the mouthpiece. Initially configured to disperse flavoured chocolate, Le Whif was marketed as the perfect addition to an afternoon espresso. Early last year, however, the team at La Lab decided to do away with the middleman: creating an inhalable coffee which tasted like the real thing and contained the same quantity of caffeine you'd find in a shot of espresso.
And it didn't stop there. In December, the company decided to use Le Whif as a means to deliver breathable vitamins. Absorbed in the mouth, they avoid the digestive tract. By heading straight into the bloodstream, the vitamins are not metabolised by digestive enzymes, so users get the full amount. According to La Laboratoire, eight drags on Le Whiff Vit supplies 100 per cent of the daily recommended amount of A, B1, B2, B3 and B5. The science behind Le Whif Vit is not yet conclusively proven, so in the meantime why not just enjoy a nice hit of chocolate with your afternoon cuppa?