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Ceramic microfilters clean up brine.

Processors of holiday hams and spicy sausages may tomorrow rely on ceramic microfilters to clean thousands of gallons of salty water, or brine. The high-tech filters could extend the life of brine that processors use to quickly chill cured meats from the smokehouse.

Too, microfilters could offer a safe, nonchemical alternative to sterilizing brine with chlorine. Currently, chlorination is the method most widely used to sanitize brine so it will be clean enough to use more than once.

Foodmakers, consumers, and the environment should benefit, says Marcus R. Hart of the Western Regional Research Center, Albany, California. Microfilters could reduce costs of disposing of used brine. Today, meatpackers pass that cost on to consumers.

Processors use brine because the salt it contains keeps cold water (26 [degrees] F) flowing when it would otherwise freeze.

With microfilters, as much as 90 percent of the brine can be made clean enough to reuse inside the packing plant, according to preliminary experiments by Hart and colleagues.

Microfiltration may help safeguard the environment by lessening the amount of brine that ends up in municipal wastewater treatment plants. Brine adds unwanted salt to the water supply. What's more, the salt kills helpful microorganisms that treatment plants rely on for cleanup chores.

Hart works with ARS colleagues Lee-Shin Tsai, Keng C. Ng, Charles C. Huxsoll, and Peter F. Hanni at Albany. The team has experimented with a small, prototype microfiltration system both at their California laboratories and in Pennsylvania at Hatfield Quality Meats, Inc., a pork products company.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, responsible for the wholesomeness of meat and poultry products, is closely following the researchers' progress.

The tests might pave the way to future federal approval of microfiltration for sanitizing brine. Right now, however, the technique is still too slow to be economical. Hart has speeded it up by adjusting brine's acidity and pumping it through coarse filters to remove large, unwieldy particles before they reach - and clog - the microfilters. He's also added enzymes to the water to break down protein particles to a size microfilters can deal with.

Together, these tactics make the process up to 10 times faster. After more experiments, he'll try these ideas, and others, at the Hatfield plant.

The microfilters he uses are made of a porous ceramic pipe inside a slightly larger stainless steel housing. Used brine is pumped to the ceramic pipe. Some of it, instead of flowing straight out the other end, travels sideways, working its way through the microporous ceramic walls.

Bacteria, and all but the finest particles, can't pass through the walls. Instead, they accumulate in a concentrate of brine that needs further cleaning. The concentrate is left behind as the cleansed brine squeezes through the ceramic walls and eventually emerges in the narrow gap between the ceramic pipe and the stainless steel housing. There, it can be piped away for reuse or, in this case, for retesting.

Meanwhile, the concentrate flows out the other end of the ceramic pipe. The concentrate can be sent for more passes through the filter until its volume becomes so small and so concentrated that it's too expensive to reclean further.

With proper maintenance, the hardworking filters can be reused repeatedly, though the research team hasn't yet determined how often the devices would need to be replaced. "They're costly, compared to other filters," says Hart, "so you want them to last a long time."

Ceramic microfilters aren't new - they've been around since the 1940's. But improved models like the one the Albany scientists are testing have been on the market for only about 10 years. The team is apparently the first to explore microfilters' potential to clean up packing plant brine.
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Author:Wood, Marcia
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:614
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