ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Under a wide-open sky, in the middle of the Southwest, researchers are on the cutting edge of cooking.
"We are walking through the helix, that field that provides power and solar input to this pretty impressive solar tower over here," said Ken Armijo, a scientist and systems engineer at Sandia National Laboratories.
It is a high-security facility that is part of the National Nuclear Security Administration. However, they also do work involving renewable energy sources, like solar.
“So, this tower here is where we do experiments for producing electricity and for using solar thermal heat for different applications, like hydrogen production or ammonia and roasting chilies," Armijo said.
That's right—roasting chilis, which are grown on his family's farm.
"On the weekends, when I'm not doing, concentrating on state-of-the-art research and energy research, I'm helping my family with our farm with organic produce and chili peppers," Armijo said.
Chili peppers are a big part of the cuisine in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest.
However, these chilis are also special.
"My family have been growing heirloom chilies, where the chili seeds are passed down from one pod to the ground, which creates another pod,” Armijo said. “And we've been doing that for three generations."
Cooking these peppers usually involves using a propane roaster, which is something done by families across the Southwest starting in August through the fall. Yet, that type of cooking can pollute the air, which got Kenneth Armijo thinking.
"Well, couldn't we take the chili roaster put it on top of our solar tower and really examine the full breadth of possibilities for roasting?" she said.
That is how the idea for solar roasting came to be, with real implications for air quality.
During their experiments, researchers figured out that replacing propane chili pepper roasting with solar would remove 800,000 kg of carbon dioxide from the air, just in New Mexico alone. That's the equivalent of taking 1,700 cars off the road.
Solar roasting could potentially be applied to other foods, too.
"There's different foods that are roasted, whether it be grains, whether it be chili peppers, chocolate, coffee," Armijo said.
That could further improve air quality.
"I feel as a farmer, in addition to being a scientist, I think it's very important that we be good stewards of our planet and all and our environment,” he said.
Now, researchers are looking at what it would take to create a more home-sized version of the solar roaster.
"Obviously, not everyone has a power tower in their backyard, but we could at least see the entire spectrum of possibilities for roasting that we could then take to more modular forms of concentrating solar thermal,” Armijo said.
It is a potentially new creation born out of the intersection of science and culture.
"There's few times when we realize the nexus between research and science and culture, and this project, I feel, was one of those unique instances that really came to light," Armijo said.
It is all coming to light in view of the bright sun.