Traditionally, the Food and Beverage (F&B) industry has consumed electricity and heat from fossil fuels – including natural gas – which releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Led by Hailin Li, a West Virginia University (WVU) research team is developing a technology to decarbonize the Food and Beverage (F&B) industry, potentially eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

Hailin Li
Professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

The new technology

The technology, proposed by Hailin Li, a Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, will supply thermal energy by burning clean fuel rather than traditional fossil fuels. Researchers will also work with Morgantown businesses to achieve those objectives.

In response to the existing challenge, Li’s team has developed a flexible fuel furnace that can burn pure hydrogen, a cleaner alternative, to produce hot water and steam for product processing.

Commenting on their target, Li said, “The food industry is facing the challenge of how to diminish and eventually eliminate CO2 emissions. If industry leaders really want to achieve that goal by 2050, they have to either burn carbon free clean fuel or consume clean electricity.”

Managing shortage of H2

Hydrogen isn’t widely available yet, so the designed furnace can also run on natural gas or its mixture with hydrogen at any ratio. Li informed that this flexibility would help bridge the industry’s transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen as it becomes more common and economically affordable.

Energy utilization efficiency

The team’s goal is to power a flexible operation with energy utilization efficiency up to 98% and nitrogen oxides emissions less than three parts per million. So, when they burn the hydrogen in the food industry, produced by consuming green energy, they produce zero carbon emissions.

The WVU research team has added to the furnace a component they call the ‘economizer’. Focusing on its function, Li informed, “The economizer is a device that can recover the waste heat from the exhaust gas, and that will make the system way more efficient.”

Collaboration with the industry

For close collaboration with the local food industry, Li’s team has partnered with Morgantown-based Mountaintop Beverage, an aseptic beverage manufacturing facility that extends the shelf life of dairy products and dairy alternatives using a thermal processing technology.

There the beverages are heated to a high temperature and undergo rapid heating and cooling, which sterilizes the product and extends the shelf life up to a year. The facility packages and preps products for shipments to schools and retailers.

Drawing attention on their aim, Li said, “We want to help our local industry by developing the technology to mitigate their challenges.”

Mountaintop Beverage will provide WVU with access to their facility for sampling furnace operation data. They’ll also perform quality analyses and provide industry input about the hydrogen boiler technology as it’s developed and tested.

Co-operation from the colleagues

Kristen Matak, a Professor of Animal and Nutritional Sciences at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is assisting Li on the project. As a food scientist focusing on value-added foods, food safety and quality control, she’s interested in the safety and sensory consequences of alternative processing methods on milk.

Stating her role in the project, Matak said, “Whenever there are changes in food processing systems, we must ensure the impacts these changes make on the final product will continue to meet relevant regulatory requirements and good manufacturing practices. My role in this project is to verify the safety and quality of the final product using microbial testing and sensory analysis.”

Kristen Matak
Professor, Animal and Nutritional Sciences, WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design

Matak will work closely with Li to optimize the sterilization process and minimize the energy consumption while maintaining and improving food quality.

The products coming off Mountaintop’s lines are shelf stable, sterile and don’t require refrigeration, so processing has to be efficient. Matak added, “All those temperatures and flow rates are very important to achieve that, or you’ll have a lot of products wasted.”

Others associated with the project

WVU will similarly be partnering with Morgantown’s Neighborhood Kombuchery. Researchers will also examine the beverage production process there and identify approaches to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Other WVU researchers on the project include Slava Akkerman, Songgang Qiu, Kostas Sierros and Xi Yu.

Xingbo Liu
Associate dean for research, WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

According to Xingbo Liu, Associate Dean for research at the Statler College, “This is a great example of multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional collaboration. The team includes faculty in both Statler and Davis colleges at WVU, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, GTI Energy and Convergent Science Inc., as well as their industrial partners. WVU recently committed to collaboration with Oak Ridge in the decarbonization areas and this is the first joint project.”

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