New Heat Pump System Being Developed To Dry Food And Agricultural Feed Products

by | Jan 1, 2024

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Scientists are looking for a more environmentally and economically friendly heat pump system to dry food and feed products ranging from grain for livestock to apple chips in the grocery store.

Rosana Moreira, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has decades of expertise related to food processing technologies, including dehydration, which is the drying process that could ultimately be integrated into the new technology.

Moreira is part of a research team tasked to develop a heat pump system to improve the energy efficiency of air-drying products at extremely high temperatures. Traditional dryers are energy-intensive and powered by natural gas or electricity generated by fossil fuels.

The $3 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy aims to reduce industrial carbon pollution and move toward net-zero emissions by implementing innovative technologies by 2050.

Moreira will help assess the prototype’s food-processing aspect, engineered by a team led by Zheng O’Neill, associate professor of mechanical engineering and J. Mike Walker ’66, Career Development Professor in the Texas A&M Department of Engineering.

“We will be helping assess novel technology,” she said. “Dr. O’Neill and her team are doing something unique, and we will be tasked with analyzing how efficient the technology is and whether its use may affect product quality.”

Closeup image of wheat in a field.
Closeup of Sorghum plant in th field.

The new technology will be used to dry down major commodity grains like wheat and sorghum and niche crops like sunflowers that go to confectionary and/or birdseed products. Images courtesy of Laura McKenzie, Texas A&M AgriLife

Input, Expertise Lead To Heat Pump Innovation

The U.S. food and beverage industry, which employs nearly 2 million workers and ships almost $1 trillion in products annually, accounts for approximately 10% of all manufacturing energy use nationally, O’Neill said. This energy expenditure does not account for post-harvest drying processes in the food and agricultural sectors.

O’Neill and her team are pursuing an innovative heat pump system that integrates dehumidification, low-cost internet-connected sensors, data assimilation and model-free predictive controls to operate food dehydration processes intelligently and safely.

Moreira and her team will assess the energy efficiency of the new technology with models and how the new process impacts the product’s physical and sensory features. Graduate students on her team are putting together mathematics- and physics-related data for the models, and the team will begin collecting experimental data in January.

“Dr. O’Neill needs to know how efficient her technology is compared to traditional heating technology using natural gas, but also how the drying process impacts the product being dried, the color, texture, shrinkage, nutritional value, taste,” Moreira said. “They want to quantify any differences in the end product and be sure the new technology is not detrimental to quality.”

Patricia Smith, Ph.D., Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering head, said Moreira’s work is a good example of how faculty engage in synergistic problem-solving.

“I am excited that Dr. Moreira and her team have this opportunity to provide input and expertise,” she said. “This project has a fantastic one-two research punch by helping create innovative solutions for sustainable energy that also provides economic benefits for stakeholders across an enormous spectrum.”

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