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Modeling "what if" scenarios in food manufacturing.

In Brief: ASABE member Ashim Datta, professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, is developing three complementary food-specific, user-friendly computing technologies that can be used to simulate "what if" scenarios in food manufacturing more efficiently than trial and error.

Every industry seeks less resource-intensive new products and process development, faster time-to-market performance, and high-quality innovation. These fundamental goals particularly apply to food manufacturing, with its material complexity and global competition.

Datta has developed three tools to help others in the field of food manufacturing. The first tool, an extensive knowledge base, will provide access to the widest possible range of food properties through a web-based interface. Users will be able to search the database for the property they need for a given food material. The second tool is a set of high-level apps that can quickly simulate food processes, such as drying or frying, to guide food manufacturers toward the best strategy for ensuring product quality. The third tool is a visualization library for the most complex food processes, such as microwave drying and puffing. These simulations will help food manufacturers find ways to improve food production processes.

These tools will make front-end work cheaper, faster, and better for a range of industry sizes, and will therefore make food manufacturing more agile, efficient, and competitive.

Drying, frying, baking, and puffing are just a few of the processes used in the world of industrial food production. Although the foods they alter are highly varied, these processes share a set of universal physical principles. "If you know the underlying physics," Datta said, "You can move between products and processes, translating from one to another."

Developing a framework for understanding the physics of food processing and designing simulation models that can pinpoint optimal methods for cooking, preserving, and packaging is how Datta has spent his career. In 1985, when Datta presented his doctoral dissertation on mathematical modeling of natural convection heating of foods, it was met with skepticism. He claims that an audience member, a professor in the discipline from an elite university, told him: "We wouldn't give you a PhD for that." Datta earned his doctorate in agricultural engineering that year from the University of Florida, and one year later he began his career as an assistant professor at Cornell.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the world seems to have caught up with Datta's work on the physics of food preparation. "I have heard from three companies who are trying to work with me on these models," he said.

In 2014, Datta led a multi-university project that received a $683,000 grant from the USDA with the goal of integrating computer simulation with teaching of food safety principles. In 2018, Datta received a major funding boost for his research: a $905,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. This project, titled "Enabling computer-aided food product and process design for everyone," has several co-PIs from Cornell as well as other national and international institutions.

"This is not new," Datta said of his use of computer modeling to improve manufacturing. "It started in the aeronautical industry in the 1970s, the automotive industry in the 1980s, and is now gaining significant interest in the food industry."

It's an unconventional way for a food engineer to go about his business, Datta said. Researchers working with food are often chemists or microbiologists who apply their disciplines to food quality or processing, or they approach the understanding experimentally. But the physics of food, and mathematical modeling of food processes? Not so much.

Much research and development in the food industry is based on trial and error, Datta said, "It's sometimes called 'cook and look.'" Resources are wasted in trying one process after another until it's optimized, such as the exact time and temperature needed to deep-fry partially frozen French fries.

For one project, Datta analyzed the process of baking using a first-principles approach, seeking an optimization strategy for the exact mechanism by which a potato gets crisper during baking. The physical principles are general enough to apply to frying as well. "Universal physical laws apply to processes as varied as cooking meat on a grill and puffing rice in a microwave oven," Datta said. "But a universal physics framework had not been developed for food, and that has been our contribution to the field."

Much of the motivation for developing this framework is to enhance quality prediction for food. "French fries have been around for a long time, so why would we make a model for French fries?" he asked. "If you're doing it by cook and look, by trial and error, and you scale up to thousands of pounds an hour, then you really have to control the process, and you have to get it right. A little problem can mean a big cost and a lot of waste. By knowing the details up front, you can get closer to doing it right the first time, in an automated, efficient way."

For more information, contact Tom Fleischman, interim managing editor, Cornell Chronicle,, or Ashim Datta,

Caption: ASABE member Ashim Datta
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Publication:Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World
Date:May 1, 2019
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