Achieving Efficiency: New Energy Options, New Breakthroughs in Food Processing Technology
Georgia's food processing industry is innovating with new green technologies and cutting-edge methods developed by companies and state universities.
Emelyne C. (Em) Williams, Communications Coordinator, Georgia Power (September 2010)

Editors Note: This article is Contributed Content, authored and paid for by Georgia Power. Food processing companies in Georgia are at the forefront of an industry-wide movement focused on innovative, sustainable and efficient production practices.

To be successful, businesses must continually look for ways to cut costs, yet continue to improve their products and services. It's a balancing act, and it's all about efficiencies.

Reducing Energy Use, Costs, and Carbon Footprint
There are many ways in which food-processing companies can achieve greater energy efficiencies and reduce their carbon footprint. An energy audit is an excellent method for establishing energy consumption and identifying opportunities to lower energy usage and costs. If your local electric utility offers energy audits, their experts can advise you on specific ways you can improve efficiencies at your facilities.

Low-cost options that can usually be implemented immediately include fixing leaks in steam, hot water, and compressed air systems and replacing faulty components such as steam traps. Also consider using higher efficiency (T8) fluorescent lighting with electronic ballasts. There are tax deductions for lighting retrofits completed by December 31, 2013.

Make sure your electric rate is appropriate for your facility, as well. Many electric companies offer time-of-use and RTP (Real-Time Pricing) rates that provide incentives to reduce usage from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m. in the summer months. If your plant has the ability to shift maintenance to these hours or to shift electrical loads during the off-peak times, you will be able to reduce your overall energy costs. Your local utility may help perform a cost analysis for competitive loads and rate comparison analysis to make sure your plant is on the most cost-effective rate.

Switching to electric equipment can save money and further reduce your company's carbon footprint. For example, when it's time to replace your gas boilers, consider electrode boilers - which are 99 percent efficient - for fuel-switching options. In Gainesville, Georgia, Mar-Jac Poultry has successfully added an electrode boiler, as well as taken advantage of RTP electric rates, to increase the plant's efficiency and to hedge against higher energy costs. The Mars confectionary plant in Bainbridge, Georgia, is another great example of a facility that has seen significant energy savings by installing an electrode boiler.

Many Georgia companies are in the forefront of environmental sustainability. Initiatives include constructing LEED-certified buildings, and recycling heat, energy, and waste. Several companies have implemented a zero-landfill initiative and others have had success using variable-frequency drive motors (VFDs) to lower their motor demand. New warehouse technologies have also been used to increase efficiency, helping companies stay competitive.

Heat-recovery analysis can show the cost savings for extracting waste in a plant and redirecting it for water heating, which reduces carbon emissions and saves energy on natural gas or fuel oil if a facility is using these types of fuels for heating its water.

With the right electric technologies, efficiency often means saving energy and money, and finding a better, higher-quality production process. It's more important than ever to use energy-efficient products and processes whenever possible, but there are other ways to be environmentally friendly and more cost-effective, as well.

Engaging in R&D
Great efficiencies can also be gained as a result of research and development. One organization on the cutting edge of food processing research is the Georgia Tech Research Institute's (GTRI) Food Processing Technology Division (FPTD). GTRI is the applied research and development arm of Georgia Tech, and FPTD develops next-generation technologies for processing efficiency and operational enhancement in the food processing industry. FPTD's research areas include advanced robotics and automation, imaging and sensing for product quality and safety, and environmental, energy, and worker safety technologies. The following are examples of promising research projects taking place in Georgia:

• Biofuels Research and Novel Separation Techniques: Researchers are developing new processes to enhance the conversion of low-quality waste oils and grease to higher-grade neutral oils or fuels. The processes adapt the current refining processes used for oils and fats to improve the separation of feedstock fractions from brown grease and stabilized poultry fat.

• Advanced UV Disinfection System: The FPTD team has developed a prototype high-efficiency germicidal ultraviolet light system to disinfect opaque liquids and improve the pathogen efficacy of similar recycled streams.

• Functional Testing of Silver Nanoparticles on Food Processing Surfaces: Researchers at GTRI and the University of Georgia recently evaluated silver nanoparticles as food processing surfaces antibacterials. Inorganic antimicrobial/antifungal nanocoatings (IANs) were deposited on various FDA-approved materials ranging from stainless steel to plastics using a non-university proprietary method. First-year testing showed that the IAN surface reductions were minimal. If pending efficacy results prove promising, the team will work to evaluate the longer-term effectiveness for both IAN deposition as well as pathogen efficacy for FDA-approved surfaces found in food processing plants.

• Waste Heat Recovery for Energy Efficient Poultry Processing: Research focuses on innovative methods for improved waste-heat recovery and utilization. Many industrial processing sectors, including poultry processing and other food facilities, generate an abundance of thermal energy as "waste" heat that, if recouped, will improve process efficiencies, reducing utilities' expenses and emissions. Thermally driven absorbent heat pump technology improvement is one area of opportunity researchers are evaluating, given the possibility of deriving tri-generation (e.g., power, heat, and cooling).

• Intelligent Oven Loading Monitoring System: Researchers have developed a prototype imaging system that monitors oven loading in fully cooked meat operations. Using 3D and IR cameras, the system can identify individual products and detect arrangement issues such as overlapping product. Thermal heat and mass transfer models along with the current oven cook profile are used to determine whether a product will reach the desired end-point temperature. This enables an accurate prediction of the percentage of product that will be overcooked and identifies pieces of meat or arrangements of products that are likely to undercook. In the future, a producer might use this information to fine-tune the product arrangement before it reaches the oven.

• Inspection and Control System for High-Volume Baking Processes: Researchers are using imaging and sensing systems to continuously monitor and control product quality on a commercial bread/bun line and to regulate large-scale industrial ovens.

• Systemic Screening System: Researchers are using an innovative computer-imaging platform to automatically detect product quality defects on high-speed poultry processing lines at a throughput of 200 birds per minute.

• Cone Line Bone Detection System: FPTD researchers have developed a prototype automatic screening system to identify missing bones on a poultry deboning line. The system uses a specially designed cone with internal illumination that has the effect of backlighting the cage (skeleton) so that it appears like an x-ray image. Suspect fillets can then be removed for closer examination.

• Intelligent Cutting and Deboning System: Researchers are developing a prototype system that uses 3D imaging and a robotic cutting arm to automatically adjust to natural size variations of product in order to perform precision cuts that optimize yield while eliminating the risk of bone fragments in finished product.

University-Focused Research
Food processing is also a major focus at the University of Georgia. In addition to having undergraduate and graduate studies in Food Science and Technology, the university's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has six centers related to food processing. Those are the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development and the Center for Soybean Improvement in Athens; the Food Product Innovation and Commercialization Center, the Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture, and the Center for Food Safety in Griffin; and the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health in Tifton.

A wide variety of research facilities are available at the UGA Athens campus for research, student teaching, and industry projects. This includes more than 20,000 square feet of food processing laboratories, including equipment for drying, freezing, evaporation, freeze drying, retorting, pasteurization, particle reduction, smoking, marination, meat processing, fermentation, and dairy processing. In addition, equipment is available for advanced processing research facilities including high-pressure processing, supercritical fluid extraction, radiant energy processing, extrusion, and impingement drying/heating.

Laboratories include physical properties testing with instrumentation for rheological characterization, light scattering, particle sizing, color measurement, thermal properties measurement, zeta potential, water activity determination, water binding properties, and headspace analysis.

Current research and development efforts are leading to exciting technological advances in the food processing industry. And while these new processes and innovations can put your business on the cutting edge, they serve an even more important function: improving your plant's efficiency. By conducting your own research and combining technological advances with energy-efficient products and services, you can achieve that delicate balance between cutting costs, yet still delivering high-quality products and services.

Area Development Online   All contents copyright © 2013 Halcyon Business Publications, Inc.