FRESNO -- Millions of gallons of water run through fruit processing plants every year, generating high costs and an ocean of waste for companies.
But all that could change with technology developed by California State University, Fresno, Professor Gour Choudhury.
Choudhury, a specialist in food processing systems, has devised a system that uses air, rather than water, to blast peels off fruit. It could slash water use by 80 percent, saving individual firms tens of thousands of dollars a month.
The project has been three years in the making and could soon be on the market as an eco-friendly solution for processors of peaches, tomatoes and other soft fruit that needs to be peeled.
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For Choudhury, who has several U.S. patents, sale of the system could be another feather in his academic cap. CSU, Fresno, would benefit as well, collecting royalties because Choudhury invented the system as an employee of the university.
Big research schools like the University of California are accustomed to handling patent revenue. "(But) this is relatively new territory for us," said Joe Bezerra, executive director of the California Agricultural Technology Institute at CSU, Fresno.
Bezerra said the project is important because it could save processors money, reduce water consumption and cut the discharge of contaminated waste water.
Industry officials are watching.
"There is a lot of interest this," said Ed Yates, president of the Sacramento-based California League of Food Processors. "Anything that uses less water, energy and chemicals will help keep us compete against the rest of the world."
Traditionally, processing plants halve fruit, remove any pits and wash them in a lye solution that loosens the skin. Then a jet of water knocks off the skin as the fruit moves along a conveyor belt.
Choudhury's system substitutes blasts of moisturized air in the final step. Some water still is needed to rinse away the lye, but far less than the half-million gallons a day that traditional systems can require.
Water: A big problem for industry
The idea began after Choudhury, a former professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, arrived in Fresno in 2003. He visited Bill Smittcamp's Wawona Frozen Foods plant in Clovis to learn about his biggest challenges.
The family-run company is a pioneer in the frozen fruit industry, making products for food manufacturers, food service distributors, restaurants, resorts, supermarkets and schools. More than 100 Wawona products are sold and distributed throughout North America.
"I wanted to know what some of the major problems the industry was facing, and Bill told me, 'water, water, water,' " Choudhury said. Water is expensive to buy, and the lye contamination requires treatment, which is also expensive.
After months of research, Choudhury and his students designed a prototype that cut Wawona's water usage per ton of fruit from 240 gallons an hour to 48.
A prototype in the Wawona plant has worked well, the company says. Fully implemented, it could save the plant at least $50,000 a month in water and wastewater charges, Choudhury says.
CSU, Fresno, submitted a patent application for the system last year. Now university officials are working out who will manufacture the equipment, who will sell it and what it will cost.
Choudhury said a Madera company is interested in making and marketing the technology, but nothing has been decided. The cost of the equipment is estimated at $300,000 to $500,000.
The capital cost is a critical ingredient in the question of how well the invention will fare in the marketplace, said Yates. If the price is too steep, processors, who can never be sure of crop and market conditions from year to year, may not invest, he said.
Also still to be resolved is how the revenue from the technology would be shared. Bezerra said a committee comprising representatives from the California State University system is working on how to manage marketing licenses and fees. Choudhury and the university must work out whether he should share in the royalties.
As far as Choudhury is concerned, this is just the beginning.
"There are many, many possibilities," he said.