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Big Science Probes Little Candies

WHAT do you get when you add two tons of M&Ms to four engineering students? A sweet mathematical theory.

Here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, four undergraduates have spent the last four months studying the scientific process of how M&M candies ``get coated.''

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``We looked at what's exactly going on when they coat M&Ms. We ran the experiments, plus we went through the books to see what was going on,'' says Joe Berghammer, a senior from Elm Grove, Wis.

The M&M-Mars Company sponsored the project at at the school's Chemical Engineering Projects Lab, and supplied the students with a bounty of M&M centers (plain chocolate, peanut, and peanut butter), green dye, and mixing equipment. No, not all the M&M centers made it into the mixer. And somehow the dye coated more than just candy.

Contrary to some reports, the team is not developing a better M&M nor a better way to coat them. ``They've been coating M&Ms for 50 years and they're pretty wonderful,'' says project director Jeffrey Feerer in an interview together with three of the four students. The point of the project is to explain scientifically why and how the coating process works; to arrive at a mathematical model.

``The making of M&Ms is a very long process and requires several different types of application of different coatings,'' says Keith Schaffer, a process engineer for M&M-Mars who helped coordinate the project. ``The students are helping us to understand why it happens like that.'' The project is part of a wider program by MIT to ask companies to support lab projects here.

Details are ``top secret.'' (``Proprietary reasons,'' says Feerer.) But team members hint that the process can be described in terms of air flow, viscosity, evaporation, fluid-dynamics, and thermodynamics.

The result? The company gets some engineering help, and ``we're able to get practical experience,'' says Neelan Choksi, a junior from Corpus Christi, Texas. Such a joint education-industry project encourages students to get their noses out of textbooks and into the lab - to get a whiff (or, in this case, a taste) of the world of engineering.

Food isn't necessarily a field one would normally associate with engineers, says chemical engineer Feerer, and he received ``incredible teasing'' from the faculty about the project.

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``A lot of people may see careers in the food industry as not technical,'' says Mr. Schaffer. ``Part of what we're doing is trying to aid our recruitment efforts.''

``It was really fun working with food,'' says Mr. Berghammer. Some students try to see who can make the tiniest computer or a laser, he says, but working with an everyday item was different: ``It's amazing how much technology goes into it.''

Also, ``with most chemical processes you can't taste the product,'' says Feerer.

And taste they do: ``I'm the only one that, like, still went home and ate M&Ms,'' says Choksi, who also says he'd often skip lunch.

Grabbing a handful of uncoated peanut M&Ms in the lab, Jeffrey Falkowsky, a junior from Brooklyn, N.Y., estimates he ate close to half a pound of M&Ms every lab day. What started as a Tuesday and Thursday lab for the students became a seven-day cram week. Inquiries from the media continue to keep them busy.

Extra M&Ms (without the familiar M&M logo) went to eager students who stopped by. A couple hundred pounds also went to charity.

Some of the green dye came in handy for Halloween, Choksi and Berghammer reveal. ``We covered our bodies with green dye and went as Incredible Hulks,'' says Choksi with a sheepish grin.

On the whole, ``they did a good job,'' says Schaffer of the students, who are still working to validate their model.

``We've done the hard part, coming up with the theory,'' says Choksi. ``Now we're just proving it, or improving it.'' The final report will most likely be in the form of mathematical equations and graphs.

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