Anyone who’s tried to make chocolate confections at home can tell you that achieving that perfect smooth consistency isn’t easy. It was only after Rodolphe Lindt invented the process of conching in 1879 that anyone enjoyed smooth chocolate. Conching is what allows granular solids like sugar, milk and cocoa powders to mix with liquid cocoa butter into a smooth, homogeneous liquid. Although the process has been known for more than a century, it’s only recently that researchers have unraveled the underlying physics that enables it.
One of the key parameters to conching is the a mixture’s jamming volume fraction; in other words, the point where the fraction of solid particles in the mixture is too high for it to flow freely. In the first stage of conching, the solid particulates and a small amount of liquid are stirred and slowly heated. The mechanical action of stirring breaks up aggregates and raises the jamming volume fraction. By the end of the dry conche, the mixture could flow, in theory, except that it fractures at a lower stress than what’s necessary to flow.
At this point, chocolatiers add the remainder of the liquid ingredients. That infusion of moisture decreases the friction between solid particles and further raises the jamming volume fraction. With the system now far below that jamming point, the mixture transforms into a freely-flowing, smooth fluid. By understanding the intricacies of the process, scientists hope to reduce the energy necessary in chocolate production and similar industrial processes. (Image credit: A. Stein; research credit: E. Blanco et al.; via Physics World; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)