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Caltech branches into ... olive oil

The Pit Expulsion Lab? Students will bottle the fruit from campus' copious trees.

April 28, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

Take 130 trees dropping olives on campus walkways. Add in students seeking prankish respite from their studies. Mix in a French-born university president with a taste for Mediterranean cuisine.

That's the formula for making olive oil at Caltech.

The institution better known for rocket science is launching its own brand of the golden kitchen condiment, produced from the trees on its Pasadena campus. A minor flood -- upward of 300 gallons -- is expected this fall.

"We are here to educate students, but we are also there to give them an opportunity to experience different things in life," Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau, an engineer who loves cooking, said in explaining why a school without a botany course is embracing a project that seems more suited to a farm college than a Nobel Prize factory.

The olive trees, which average 80 years of age, provide the science-and-engineering campus a canopy of shade from the San Gabriel Valley heat. But those trees drop so many olives in autumn, staining walkways black and felling skateboarders, that the school sprayed them to retard fruit growth and even considered replacing them with fruitless varieties.

In October, the ripening crop snagged the attention of students Ricky Jones and Dvin Adalian. They began an exercise that might date to Socrates' pupils in ancient Greece: whacking olive trees with a stick (in this case, a plastic pipe) and collecting what falls.

"I was just trying to relieve the stress from being inside and busy all the time. I wanted to go outside and do something else," recalled Jones, 21, a talkative biology major from Minnesota who wants to be a physician.

"As a physics major, I'm supposed to be working on a chalkboard or something," explained Adalian, 20, who is from Virginia. "But it's nice to go out and do something physically and show I can do something useful besides physics work."

The two proposed an experiment: Could Caltech's trees produce olive oil?

"We want to figure out stuff people haven't done at Caltech yet," Jones said. "There is always this feeling at Caltech that you want to find something new to do."

Good timing intervened. Recently arrived from being second in command at Georgia Tech, Chameau and his wife, Carol Carmichael, noticed the pair at work with tarps and buckets on the aptly named Olive Walk. Told of their plans, Chameau issued a challenge: If they actually made oil, he would cook them dinner at the presidential residence.

The students, with help at various times from as many as 15 friends, took up the dare, armed with a little Internet research and a lot of winging it.

Their 30 pounds of black and green olives were cleaned, soaked and (somewhat) pitted. Four kitchen blenders in the Ruddock House dorm pulverized the olives into "this slurry, a disgusting mess," Jones recalled. The glop, Adalian said, was stewed in "lots and lots of pots" for two hours in kitchens on three dorm floors.

The odor triggered some complaints. "The smell of stewing olives is wonderful, but it is a little bit powerful," conceded Jones, the dorm president.

It took engineering trial and error to separate the oil from water and solids.

The students first placed the stew inside plastic garbage bags -- with cheesecloth and punctured holes at the bottom -- and pressed down with cinderblocks and concrete pieces. Some oil dripped into bowls, but most of the bags remained clogged.

The next idea was more successful: press the stew by hand through window screens. (Yes, they did clean the screens first.) Then, with the consent of a somewhat baffled professor, they purified the oil by spinning it in centrifuges in a biology lab.

Jones explained the process in Caltech-speak: "They are different chemical structures, and because of that they don't bind to each other and don't have the same molecular weight. So you use a centrifuge to take advantage of that property and separate them by density. So oil will go to the top and water will go to the bottom, along with dirt and particulate matter."

The result, stored in plastic test tubes with blue caps, was about a half-liter of nice-tasting oil. Late one night, the crew delivered a surprise portion to the president's house.

"We didn't realize they would actually have the moxie to walk up to our door at 10 o'clock at night and hand us the olive oil," recalled Carmichael, a technology researcher who is now Caltech's senior counselor for external relations. But, keeping their pledge, she and Chameau invited the group over for a November dinner of rabbit stew, onion tarte and cranberry sorbet.

The students' oil was not used in the meal, but the presidential couple and their six guests taste-tested it along with store-bought samples from around the world.

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