Said to be less expensive, faster, smaller than pasteurization
By Loralee Stevens, Special to the Business Journal
VACAVILLE — From WiFi and Bluetooth to the possible harvesting of solar power from space, the humble radio-frequency wave is having something of a high-tech heyday.
Some scientists believe high-range RF is capable of transmitting power over the air. And now the lowest ranges are coming into the high-tech arena.
Vacaville startup RF Biocidics (707-451-2027, rfbiocidics.com) is greening up the processing of fruits, nuts and potentially a wide range of foods by subjecting them to low-frequency radio waves.
“Our process is an alternative to steam heat or chemical pasteurization,” said Craig Powell, RF Biocidics president and chief executive officer. “There’s a move to get away from the use of PPO.”
Widely used to pasteurize almonds, propylene oxide is a highly volatile liquid and a “probable human carcinogen,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The use of steam, while nontoxic, alters the flavor of foods.
The RF technology was developed at the University of California at Davis about ten years ago, where a group of scientists spent seven years studying the effects of low frequencies on more than 100 foods.
Their research showed that RF treatment could effectively kill microbes and insects without overheating the food surface, making it suitable for a range of materials including milk, juice, fruits, nuts, seeds and spices.
The technology is now being commercialized under the auspices of Massachusetts investment group Allied Minds, Inc.
“They’re an unusual group of funders,“ said Mr. Powell. “Their goal is successful technology transfer and they have put no limitations or deadlines in our way.”
He and his team have chosen to go after the dried fruit, nuts and seeds segment of agricultural production, most of which takes place in California.
Several years ago the state mandated the pasteurization of the almond crop, legislation that Mr. Powell believes will soon be extended to other products.
“If other states adopt it, as they often do after California initiates a process, RF Biocidics should be in a good position to grow,” he said.
The 25-employee company both manufactures the processing systems and provides the processing service to producers who cannot afford the high cost: $600,000 to $2 million or more per machine.
RF Biocidics currently has customers for its machines among food processors in the U.K., North and South America. Manufacturing plants are in the U.K. and U.S., with fabrication, assembly and testing taking place at the company’s headquarters in Vacaville.
“We’re currently taking orders for our machines from the Middle East, for date processing, and Australia, for nuts,” said Mr. Powell.
He doesn’t rule out future expansion of the company’s markets.
According to James Culler, a University of California, Davis, professor and director of the Dairy Food Safety Laboratory, the possibilities are many. He worked with scientist Manuel Lagunas-Solar, PhD, and currently the chief scientific officer at RF Biocidics, to develop the technology.
“The technology has the ability to apply a wide range of frequencies, depending on the material to be processed,” said Dr. Culler, including cheese, yogurt, pet food and wine.
Both solid and liquid wastes can also be zapped with RF, he said, “which could be a whole industry in itself.”
If the price of the systems could be brought down the technology would be of infinitesimal value in the third world, where water purification is badly needed.
“The process is less expensive, quicker and takes up a much smaller footprint than traditional pasteurization equipment,” said Dr. Culler.
Both he and Mr. Powell agree that the only impediment to wide adoption is unfamiliarity on the part of materials processors.
“Validation will come from our continuing to execute on the highest level and demonstrating our success,” said Mr. Powell.
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