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OnTech spent $24 million to create a self-heating cup of java.
July 5, 2005

OnTech Delaware, Inc.’s new self-heating container makes a caffeine junkie’s next hot hit of drip as convenient as popping a can of cola – and it might one day do the same for everything from soups to sterilized medical equipment.

The company is releasing the container of gourmet coffee, which heats up at the push of a “button,” under the Wolfgang Puck gourmet coffee products line in Kroger’s supermarkets. At $2.25 a can, it costs less than a cup from Starbucks. However, the venti-sized package totes only a less-than-tall 10 ounces of coffee. The rest of the hefty one-pound-plus container comes across a bit like The World’s Greatest Science Project.

To heat the coffee, a user turns the can over, pops off a lid, and presses down in the middle of a “puck” of water – breaking the foil barrier between it and an inner cone containing calcium oxide, better known as lime. The water reacts with the lime, producing calcium hydroxide and heat. The heat then radiates through the cone to the coffee, which is separated in another compartment.

OnTech’s researchers have tailored the process to produce a peak 140 degrees in about eight minutes (compared with the typical coffee shop’s 180-degree offering). And the heating process keeps the liquid warm for about 30 minutes. But if you’re impatient (as I was) and don’t hold the can upside down long enough for the water to mix, or you open it before the coffee heats up, you might as well pour in chipped ice and call it a frappe.
 
To help prevent premature opening, though, the container has a spot of heat-reactive dye on the label that turns a different color at the proper temperature. And the plastic comfort lid, designed to keep one’s lips from touching the hot top, is glued into an offset position that prevents opening it easily until the heat-sensitive glue melts. Finally, the can’s label is made of polystyrene, which acts as an insulating layer, keeping the container from becoming uncomfortable to hold.

But what about a minor explosion from a misfiring reaction? One can take some comfort from the fact that most of the 102 patent claims on the device are for safety features, including two different venting systems to release excess heat.

Frankly, I was lukewarm about how the flavors in this first product line tasted (they’re four low-carb ones). The line might just have to rely on its gee-whiz factor. Even if the coffee cup tanks as a new product, though, it won’t mean the failure of this self-heating technology. The company is ramping up to make containers for soups, pasta, hot chocolate, teas, and baby formula as well. And they’re also looking into markets in emergency medical sterilization equipment, military rations, and camping products.

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