Nov. 20 (UPI) -- When hot oil meats a droplet of water in the frying pan, oil droplets explode in all directions. These tiny oil explosions can send droplets out of the pan and burn a person's hands and arms.
New research suggests some of the droplets are small enough to become suspended in the air, potentially contributing to indoor air pollution. These tiny drops of oil could be inhaled, researchers warn.
"We've discovered that a very large number of small oil droplets are released when even a single, small droplet of water comes into contact with hot oil," Jeremy Marston, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University, said in a news release.
To study the dynamics of these tiny oil explosions, researchers mixed oil and water at high temperatures and filmed the results with a high-speed video camera.
Scientists heated thin layers of different oils to various temperatures to begin each experiment.
"Then, we inject a small droplet of water and record the event with a high-speed video camera," Marston said in a press release. "The resulting phenomena is dramatic -- you can see the explosive release when the water, trapped under the oil, vaporizes all of a sudden. This causes the oil film to rupture and sends oil droplets flying."
Scientists warn that chicken breasts and vegetables are particularly problematic, as they're high in water content.
"Our research may be particularly relevant to Chinese cooking methods in which water is added to hot woks," Marston told The Telegraph.
Researchers were surprised to find that many of the droplets are less an a single micron across, and can thus become -- at least momentarily -- suspended in air. Marston and his colleagues are currently working to determine how long these tiny droplets can remain suspended in the air, and whether proper ventilation systems can prevent the micro-droplets from affecting indoor air quality.
"It's known that millions of deaths worldwide occur due to indoor air pollution, but we don't know yet how much cooking in poorly ventilated kitchens contributes to it," Marston said. "We're planning to conduct a detailed study to quantify how much impact kitchen-based aerosols have on indoor air pollution."
Marston and his fellow researchers presented their latest findings this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics held in Denver.