Physics in food summit looks for new ideas in collaboration with industry

18 April 2016

A Physics in Food Manufacturing Summit was held by the IOP on 15 April to launch a year-long programme to foster new collaborations between industry and academia.

Physics in food summit

The summit attracted researchers engaged in work with the potential to be applied to food manufacturing, speakers from the industry and delegates from the Knowledge Transfer Network as well as from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

They were welcomed by the IOP’s president, Professor Roy Sambles, who underlined the importance of the sector, which contributes around £96 bn a year to the UK economy and employs more than three million people.

He and IOP Council member Professor Michael Duncan, who chaired the summit, stressed that the meeting was just the start of a programme to bring academics and industry together to address some of the scientific challenges facing the sector and that group sessions to discuss how the capabilities and interests of academics could be matched with the unmet needs in food manufacturing would form a major part of the day.

Professor Ian Noble, senior R&D director at PepsiCo, said food was something of a hidden sector in the UK. While many gave little thought to how food was produced or reached consumers, food and drink was the biggest manufacturing sector in the UK and its gross value added to the economy was almost more than that of the automotive and aerospace industries combined.

Food exports had doubled in the past 10 years, but while this was hailed as a success story, there had been a decline in their percentage value of world trade and UK imports had grown even faster. This could be viewed negatively or seen as a “massive opportunity”, he said. The industry was short of about 170,000 people, its five top international companies still had significant R&D bases here and food R&D was “a good place to play in”, he said.

Among the challenges were sustainability in an industry that had to feed everyone on the planet, dealing with variability in raw materials while satisfying consumer demand for continuity, and understanding the fundamental science of food at the molecular level.

Professor Peter Lilliford, who spent most of his career at Unilever Research, said he had seen physics play a growing role in understanding and improving food processing, including the use of heat transfer physics in soup-making and modelling the baking process by making use of the physics of solid foam. He described how the industry could both exploit existing research and explore new areas, such as modelling the flow of complicated liquids in the mouth. While much of processing design was still empirically-driven, it would be much better if we could determine likely outcomes in advance by using physics, he said.

Case studies showing the impact of physics in food manufacture and current scientific challenges were presented by John Bows, technology innovation manager at PepsiCo Europe R&D, Dr Robert Farr, a physicist in the strategic science group at Unilever, and Dr John Melrose, a coffee science expert at Jacobs Douwe Egberts.

Bows said that as a physicist he was keen to encourage more physics graduates into food manufacturing and he hoped that would be one of the outcomes of the summit. He described how physics underpinned crisp manufacture including understanding surface tension of potato slices, imaging the inside of the product and looking at how processing affected its structure. He had worked in microwave packaging and using MRI for remote measurement. Among the challenges he described were using imaging to track microstructure evolution during processing, thermal, electrical and physical measurement in situ and studying the properties of inhomogeneous materials.

Farr said that among the ways in which physics research impacted Unilever’s business was in large-scale numerical modelling of fluid flows, in vivo imaging and theoretical physics. Physics was applied to such problems as demonstrating how tetrahedral tea-bags were an improved design, enhancing the liquid properties of meal replacement drinks and understanding the drying process in foods. Continuing challenges included simulating microstructures under flow, in situ visualisation of microstructures and better understanding of structural dynamics.

Melrose, referring to published papers on the measurement of coffee bed permeability, and heat and mass transfer in coffee bean roasting, among others, said the skills that physicists could “bring to the party” included analysis of a problem, new measurement techniques and the ability to apply solutions to apparently unrelated problems. The continuing challenges he described included stability of meta-stable states, modelling of multi-phase colloid structures, and powder physics.

The three took part in a panel discussion chaired by the IOP’s chief executive, Professor Paul Hardaker, which included questions from the audience on whether intellectual property issues got in the way of collaboration with universities, and how important it was for them to publish in academic journals. There was some consensus that publishing was beneficial to a business as it kept scientists on top form, provided feedback through peer review and seemed to correlate with a company’s success.

To set the scene for the breakout sessions, Professor Duncan, former global director of R&D at Procter & Gamble (P&G), spoke about collaboration to drive innovation. He said at one time P&G had been working with 200 universities worldwide, in 700 partnerships that were often sporadic. Feedback showed that universities wanted longer-term relationships, while P&G wanted fewer, bigger partnerships, and its challenges were often multidisciplinary. They had put in place project managers to handle multiple projects over many years.

Dr Jayne Brookman, head of food at the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), explained that in 2013 the UK government had produced a UK strategy for agricultural technologies and the KTN had a food sector group, which facilitated industry coming together and providing clear messages to government and academia. It had been determined that the UK needed the food industry to provide a resource-efficient, safe, secure, innovative and resilient food manufacturing supply chain, and these needs had been broken down into 10 priority research areas for the sector.

These and the specific challenges mentioned by the industry speakers were discussed in the breakout sessions and the IOP plans to capture the outcomes of these in a report on the state of the food sector. The IOP plans further consultation with those who took part in the summit, a stakeholder meeting in the summer to include government and a two-day workshop in the autumn, as well as work on careers materials and possibly an ebook.

Sheffield Hallam University, one of the partners with the Institute in producing the summit, is to collaborate with the IOP in running the autumn workshop. The other partners in producing the summit were Unilever, PepsiCo, EPSRC, the Food and Drink Federation, Innovate UK, Jacobs Douwe Egberts and the KTN.

Summing up the discussions, Hardaker mentioned the need to make more people aware of the facilities in universities and national research facilities, which were often cheaply or freely available, to strengthen relationships between industry and universities at management level, to give more formal recognition to academics who work in this area, and to recognise the value of collaboration to departments in terms of impact and not just in income from intellectual property.

Commenting on the day, Bows said: “It’s the first time in 25 years that I’ve seen any kind of gathering of the academic physics community, food manufacturers and the main UK funding agencies. It’s been a unique meeting in which to share the industry challenges with the whole academic physics base in the UK. The numbers attending exceeded my expectations and I’d like to stress how impressed I was with the arrangements by the IOP.”

Farr said: “The key thing for me has been the discussion part. What struck me in the mapping exercises was how diverse the problems are. Many areas of physics will be applicable to the food industry. We are making connections so fingers crossed we may find some good people that we can work with in the future.”

  • IOP head of science and innovation Anne Crean has also written about the Physics in Food Manufacturing Summit at the IOP blog.

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