Kevin Ashton is a very clever man. He loves to figure out how things work, and he makes a living explaining them to others. His article at medium.com is a take-off of “I, Pencil” written back in 1958 by Leonard Read, which became a best-seller.
Ashton says that a can of Coke costs about 50 cents. But how it got onto his grocery store’s shelf is impossibly complex. It starts with the aluminum can itself:
Each can originated in a small town of 4,000 people on the Murray River in Western Australia called Pinjarra. Pinjarra is the site of the world’s largest bauxite mine. Bauxite is surface mined — basically scraped and dug from the top of the ground.
The bauxite is crushed and washed with hot sodium hydroxide, which separates it into aluminum hydroxide and waste material called red mud. The aluminum hydroxide is cooled, then heated to over a thousand degrees celsius in a kiln, where it becomes aluminum oxide, or alumina.
The alumina is dissolved in a molten substance called cryolite, which is a rare mineral from Greenland, and turned into pure aluminum using electricity in a process called electrolysis.
The pure aluminum sinks to the bottom of the molten cryolite, is drained off and placed in a mold. It cools into the shape of a long cylindrical bar. The bar is transported west again, to the Port of Bunbury, and loaded onto a container ship bound for — in the case of Coke for sale in Los Angeles — Long Beach.
Let me interrupt here. How does this happen? More importantly, how could a government bureaucracy think it could do this better? Think of all the pieces and parts not only of materials but of the decisions that must be made, the discoveries that must be made and developed and refined, the connections that must be built, all to create an aluminum can. And do it at a cost that provides a profit to each provider along the way while producing an end product that’s cheap enough for the consumer to buy.
And Ashton hasn’t even gotten to what’s inside. It’s quite an adventure.
Here’s the secret sauce:
Coca-Cola is made from a syrup produced by the Coca-Cola Company of Atlanta. The main ingredient in the formula used in the United States is a type of sugar substitute called high-fructose corn syrup 55, so named because it is 55 per cent fructose or “fruit sugar”, and 42 per cent glucose or “simple sugar” — the same ratio of fructose to glucose as natural honey.
HFCS is made by grinding wet corn until it becomes cornstarch. The cornstarch is mixed with an enzyme secreted by a rod-shaped bacterium called Bacillus and an enzyme secreted by a mold called Aspergillus. This process creates the glucose. A third enzyme, also derived from bacteria, is then used to turn some of the glucose into fructose.
What incentive would drive anyone to develop such a process? Surely not good will, or altruism, or the prospect of fame or notoriety. I can think of only one: potential for profit.
Next: the coloring. I don’t want to know what this looks like without the coloring:
The second ingredient, caramel coloring, gives the drink its distinctive dark brown color. There are four types of caramel coloring — Coca Cola uses type E150d, which is made by heating sugars with sulfite and ammonia to create bitter brown liquid.
The syrup’s other principal ingredient is phosphoric acid, which adds acidity and is made by diluting burnt phosphorus (made by heating phosphate rock in an arc-furnace) and processing it to remove arsenic.
Thanks for removing the arsenic!
Then there’s the flavoring:
A much smaller proportion of the syrup is flavors. These include vanilla, which is the fruit of a Mexican orchid that has been dried and cured for around three months; cinnamon, the inner bark of a Sri Lankan tree; coca-leaf which comes from South America and is processed in a unique US government authorized factory in New Jersey to remove its addictive stimulant cocaine; and kola nut, a red nut found on a tree which grows in the African Rain Forest (this may be the origin of Coca-Cola’s distinctive red logo).
And then there’s the caffeine. Gotta have that!
The final ingredient is caffeine, a stimulating alkaloid that can be derived from the kola nut, coffee beans and other sources.
He goes on to show what happens next, and what happens after that, and after that, and after that. To an alien observer it looks like a miracle, or madness.
Ashton forgot to mention that the original formula for Coke contained cocaine. So today’s Coke isn’t quite like the original. But the miracle remains.