Seven Harry Potter spells - it's not magic it's chemical engineering (Day 359)

Seven Harry Potter spells - it's not magic it's chemical engineering (Day 359)

21st May 2015

Today is Day 359, and there are just seven days left to shine a light on chemical engineering. So I thought I would try something a little different by highlighting seven Harry Potter 'spells' that are all in a day's work for chemical engineers.

Most people enjoy a little magic, whether that involves reading fantasy fiction, watching a magical movie or even practising a little magic at family gatherings with the words 'pick a card, any card'.

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One of the most popular fantasy offerings in a generation is Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, the epic tale of a boy wizard and his quest to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort.

Harry's exploits along with his friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have captured the imagination of millions of readers and film-goers around the world.

As a chemical engineer and covert Harry Potter admirer, I thought I would combine the two (with a little help from the mischievous blog elves) and highlight the science and engineering behind seven – the most powerful magical number – spells and potions from the wizarding world:

1. Essence of dittany

You may remember the use of this potion from the final instalment of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as Ron Weasley 'splinched' his arm after 'disapparating' to escape the grips of a Death Eater (follower of Lord Voldemort). Essence of dittany, from a plant that produces a healing and restorative properties, and was applied to treat Ron's injuries – instantly.

In my blog, 'Smart bandage could save lives', I shared how chemical engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, have designed a bandage that dispenses a coagulating agent to stop any bleeding and then slowly releases an antibiotic to prevent infection. These bandages, made up of layers of hemostatic films, can release drugs at one layer at a time, which kick-starts the healing process and ensures that wounds are treated effectively.

2. Impervius

The Impervius charm is a spell that can repel water from a surface, essentially making something water resistant. If you compare this spell to a muggle (non-magical) world application, I'm sure that Gore-Tex® comes to mind.

It was a father and son team of chemical engineers who invented the waterproof and breathable fabric membrane which is now used for clothing, medical implants, wire insulation and sealants etc.

Bob Gore and his father, Bill Gore, invented Gore-Tex® after experimenting with a rod of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Bob discovered that if you suddenly stretched PTFE by 800 per cent, a micro-porous structure composed of approximately 70 per cent of air would form. Through further experimentation, they developed a waterproof laminate called Gore-Tex® (or expanded PTFE).

Here's a YouTube clip of Bob Gore explaining his discovery:

3. The Invisibility Cloak

Photo Credit| Harry Potter Wiki
The invisibility cloak, gifted to Harry during his first year at Hogwarts, renders him invisible.

I've blogged about this kind of camouflage technology before in my blog 'Ten ways chemical engineering has changed science fiction into fact' where chemical engineers from the University of California, Irvine, US, have created the magic that is squid-inspired invisibility stickers. A potential application of this technology is for soldiers to evade detection in the dark, particularly from infrared cameras. And who knows, if Harry hadn't been given his invisibility cloak, he could have covered himself in invisibility stickers to escape the eagle eyes of the Death Eaters.

4. Lumos

The lumos spell illuminates the end of a wizard or witch's wand. Chemical engineers are most definitely 'muggles' without a magic wand in their toolbox, but they do create the energy that keeps the lights on. From nuclear and fossil fuels, through to renewables and fuel cells, chemical engineers work across all parts of energy landscape to ensure that our electricity needs are met.

You can find out how chemical engineers power and light up our lives with the Lumos charm through the IChemE Energy Centre. We must work together to try to solve the energy grand challenges of the 21st century with innovative, and maybe to some 'magical' solutions.

5. Geminio

The Geminio spell was used by Hermione Granger in the final instalment of the seven part series to duplicate Salazar Slytherin's locket to fool Dolores Umbridge so no one knew it was taken. The charm duplicates an object – a method that chemical engineers employ using 3D printing.

There are many examples of 3D printing highlighted throughout my blog; see my posts 'Breakthrough in 3D printing inspired by the Terminator' and '3D printing a space rocket'. But today, I'm going to focus on the magic that is 3D bio-printing, a technology that can develop functional, 3D human tissue. Organovo, a US company founded on the work of a chemical engineer, Professor Thomas Boland, creates multi-cellular and dynamic human tissues to aid drug discovery and medical research. This example of mimicry could lead to ground breaking advances in the field of medicine.

You can watch how the bioprinting process works below:

6. Wingardium Leviosa

Photo Credit | Harry Potter Wiki

Many will remember this spell – it's one of the first charms learnt by Harry and his friends at Hogwarts. This levitation spell even saved the famous trio, Harry, Ron and Hermione, from a cave troll in their first year.

So you'll be interested to hear that chemical engineers have been using levitation, not to knock out cave trolls, but to improve the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals.

Using acoustic levitation, the team from the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, US, kept droplets of drugs suspended in the air to produce amorphous compounds. Most drugs are composed of a crystalline structure, but amorphous drugs are more soluble with a higher bio-availability. To create an amorphous structure, the team of researchers levitated molecules to prevent them from solidifying in a crystalline form.

7. The Beautification potion

This potion makes someone very beautiful; and whilst beauty is in the eye of the beholder, chemical engineers are working in the personal care and cosmetic industry to develop products that make people feel better about their appearance.

I have featured an example in ChemEng365, 'Even chemical engineers can pamper', where Dr Betty Yu, a chemical engineer from Living Proof, US, spearheaded the development of neotensil – a skin product that uses polymer technology to compress and flatten eye bags. I've also demonstrated why chemical engineering matters to nail varnish in my post 'Behind every good manicure is a great chemical engineer'. Although I have only featured two Beautification potions today, for every manufactured beauty product that is purchased, be that perfume, skin cream or nail varnish, somewhere in that process – a chemical engineer made it happen.

So there we have it.  Seven is the magic number- and not a wand in sight.  All you need is a little bit of innovative chemical engineering. That's magic!

Are you a fantasy fiction fan? If so, why not comment below and suggest your own example of chemical engineering wizardry.