FFAR Awards $790,000 Grant to Revolutionize Food Processing Industry

University of California, Davis researchers testing new drying process to reduce food waste and energy use

Irwin R. Donis-Gonzalez (left), Ph.D., and Kurt Kornbluth, Ph.D., are part of the team of UC Davis researchers.

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), a nonprofit established in the 2014 Farm Bill with bipartisan congressional support, awarded a $790,000 Seeding Solutions grant to University of California, Davis (UC Davis) to test new technology to improve the drying methods used in food production. This new method will use innovative moisture-absorbing technology instead of exclusively relying on heated air to dehydrate produce, such as grains, nuts, rice and seeds, for optimum storage and distribution. The FFAR grant has been matched with funding from the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences for a total $1.5 million investment.

“The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is proud to support research with such exciting potential to reduce food waste and improve energy efficiency,” said Sally Rockey, Executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. “This project exemplifies how new innovations can help us produce a safe, reliable food supply that uses resources more efficiently.”

Moisture must be removed from harvested agricultural products to safely preserve them prior to processing into food products. For example, wheat needs to be dried before it can be ground into flour for distribution or processing into other foods. Inadequately dried commodities deteriorate in storage, accounting for around 60 percent of postharvest food loss worldwide. Lack of sufficient drying in food handling can also lead to the presence of mycotoxins, chemicals produced by fungi that, when consumed, can cause negative health outcomes in both animals and humans. In addition, drying is used extensively in food processing, such as in production of tomato paste or other concentrates.

Many current drying methods are energy intensive and use industrial dryers powered by gas burners or electricity. UC Davis researchers and collaborators will test a newly developed technology, called Drying Beads. The beads absorb water without using heat, reducing the use of energy by up to 50 percent during the drying process. The beads are reusable and can be reactivated, which would reduce drying costs over time. The ability to dry and store beads when power is available would enable more efficient use of intermittent power supplies such as wind or solar.

The research is being led by Principal Investigator (PI) Irwin R. Donis-Gonzalez, Ph.D., Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering in UC Davis’ College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

“Drying agricultural produce is an energy intensive process and it is imperative to find alternative means of drying for the enhancement of food quality, safety, and economical operations, while reducing food losses and waste,” said Donis-Gonzalez.

Researchers will investigate if this technology can improve product quality and safety, measure the energy savings, evaluate reduction of food lost, and economic incentives for adoption in the industry. According to researchers, this technology could save more than 1.06 quadrillion kilojoules of energy annually in the U.S. This is about the same amount of energy it takes to provide electricity to residents of New York, California and Florida for one year.

“Drying Beads have demonstrated their usefulness for drying and preserving seeds for planting diverse crops, particularly in humid climates,” said Kent Bradford, Ph.D., co-PI, distinguished professor at UC Davis. “This FFAR project seeks to scale this technology up to dry the much larger volumes of grains, nuts, fruits and other dried commodities while reducing energy use.”

“We are excited about performing the first scientific investigation of a zeolite beads-based drying system to see if it can offer more efficient, flexible drying, with better product quality,” said Kurt Kornbluth, Ph.D., co-PI and assistant adjunct professor at UC Davis.

Researchers on this project include:

  • Kent J. Bradford, Ph.D., co-PI, distinguished professor at University of California, Davis
  • Kurt Kornbluth, Ph.D., co-PI, assistant adjunct professor at University of California, Davis
  • Edward Spang, Ph.D., co-PI, assistant professor at University of California, Davis
  • Johan Van Asbrouck, collaborator, CEO of Rhino Research, Bangkok, Thailand

This project is supported by FFAR through its Seeding Solutions grant program, which calls for bold, innovative, and potentially transformative research proposals in the Foundation’s seven Challenge Areas. This grant supports the Food Waste and Loss Challenge Area, which aims to address the social, economic, and environmental impacts from food waste and food loss.

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