AgBioResearch Quarterly Newsletter - Spring 2013
Frederik Derksen, MSU Food Science and Human Nutrition chairperson
A team of food safety researchers and educators led by Michigan State University will soon begin working with the Saudi Food and Drug Authority, a new Saudi Arabian government authority responsible for regulating the safety of food, feed and pesticides, in addition to drugs and medical devices.
“Saudi Arabia has about 28 million people and imports food from over 250 countries, so you can imagine a big challenge is making sure that the food is safe,” said MSU AgBioResearch scientist Frederik Derksen, also professor and chairperson of the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. “MSU is going to help this relatively new agency to do its job to improve food safety in Saudi Arabia, as well as in the Middle East.”
MSU’s renowned international expertise in food safety will be utilized to enhance Saudi Arabia’s knowledge base and regulatory infrastructure. The initiative will rely on at least 30 MSU scientists across 11 departments that focus on food safety research, from preharvest food safety to food processing standards and policies.
Les Bourquin, MSU AgBioResearch scientist and professor of food science and human nutrition, has been named the director of the MSU Saudi Arabia Food Safety Education-Training Initiative Office. The office will coordinate several programs related to the effort, including:
Graduate education for Saudi Arabian food industry professionals.
Professional development training for Saudi Food and Drug Authority professionals through short-term, intensive learning experiences and internships.
Technical advising aimed at helping the Saudi agency improve its capacity to oversee food safety and expand its regulatory infrastructure.
Guidance in helping the SFDA establish a regional food safety academy to continue building Saudi Arabia’s capacity to improve its food safety and security.
Collaborative research projects between MSU scientists and Saudi researchers focused on solving food safety issues relevant to Saudi Arabia and the world.
“The partnership with MSU will help in increasing our capacity as a national food safety regulator,” said Ibrahim Al-Mohizea, vice president of SFDA for food affairs and MSU alumnus. “We are hopeful that this initiative will have a positive impact on the safety of food not only in Saudi Arabia but also in the whole region.”
The initiative will involve several other U.S. educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and food industry specialists, most notably the Global Food Protection Institute (GFPI) in Battle Creek, Mich. The institute, a nonprofit organization established in 2009, will deliver professional development training programs to Saudi Food and Drug Authority employees through its International Food Protection Training Institute.
“The Global Food Protection Training Institute (GFPTI) has set up a very effective training system for local and state food safety regulators. One of the objectives with our work is to set up a similar training academy in Riyadh that will allow Saudi Arabia to train inspectors locally,” Derksen said.
“We look forward to this new partnership with MSU and SFDA to establish a Regional Food Safety Academy. The training programs delivered by the International Food Protection Training Institute will be essential for the vital role of protecting the food supply domestically and internationally,” said Julia Bradsher, president and chief executive officer of GFPI.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world that has as comprehensive a food safety program as Michigan State University together with GFPTI,” Derksen said. “Saudi Arabia came to us knowing our capacity in this area. Food safety is a concern to everybody. The United States, too, imports food from other countries, many of those in the Middle East region. So if we can improve food safety anywhere in the world, we’ll improve food safety here in Michigan and in the United States, and, of course, anyone traveling internationally will benefit from this as well.”
(Source: MSU Today "MSU partners with Saudi agency to improve food safety")
During last summer’s drought in Michigan – the worst in the past half-century – Michigan State University researchers nearly doubled corn production on in-state test farms using a process that inserts soil water-saving membranes below plant root zones.
The subsurface water retention technology (SWRT) process developed by Alvin Smucker, MSU professor of soil biophysics and an AgBioResearch scientist, uses contoured, engineered films strategically placed at various depths below a plant’s root zone to retain soil water. The SWRT membrane spacing also permits internal drainage during excess rainfall and provides space for root growth.
“This technology has the potential to change lives and regional landscapes domestically and internationally where highly permeable [sandy] soils have prohibited the sustainable production of food,” Smucker said. “Water retention membranes reduce quantities of supplemental irrigation, protect potable groundwater supplies, and enable more efficient use and control of fertilizers and pesticides.”
The applicability of SWRT extends to a broad range of agricultural crops, including non-food crops for production of cellulosic biomass feedstock on marginal lands. In last summer’s trials, on irrigated sands near Benton Harbor, Mich., SWRT-improved sands produced 145 percent more (640 hundredweight [cwt] per acre) cucumbers than did the control fields (440 cwt per acre) without water-saving membranes.
Smucker and his team dramatically increased corn grain production on SWRT-improved sands near East Lansing, Mich. Last summer, irrigated corn grain yields increased 135 percent (213 versus 158 bushels per acre [bu/a] for controls) on conventional 30-inch row spacings and 174 percent (268 versus 154 bu/a for controls) on 15-inch row spacings. Corn stalk plant biomass doubled when grown on SWRT water retention membranes.
This year, Smucker and Kurt Thelen, professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, together with MSU horticultural faculty members Mathieu Ngouajio and Ron Goldy, will lead teams of scientists, engineers and industrial agricultural experts in implementing the subsurface water retention membranes on farms in irrigated sandy regions of southwestern Michigan and in semi-arid and arid regions of the southwestern and midwestern United States. Expanded MSU faculty teams including John Whims and Amirpouyan Nejadhashemi are also exploring opportunities to overcome hunger with SWRT water-saving membranes in several international locations.
Smucker’s work in developing the prototype and conducting field testing was funded in part by the Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (MIIE).
Background: Subsurface Water Retention Technology (SWRT)Benefits
- Durable and easy to install: Water-retaining membranes can last at least 40 years and can be installed quickly and cost-effectively.
- Enhanced plant and food crop production: The technology has the ability to immediately improve highly permeable marginal soils converting them to much higher production levels of food crops.
- Better water resource usage: Subsoil water retention technology is positioned to improve plant water use efficiencies.
- Better chemical utilization: Just as water resource efficiencies are improved by SWRT, so can use of fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals become more efficient.
- Agriculture industry: Most field and horticultural crops.
- Biomass feedstocks: Cellulosic biomass crops (e.g. miscanthus and switchgrass) specifically grown for biomass conversion to ethanol and diesel fuels.
- Initial field tests conducted on water retention technologies installed in sand soils have more than doubled soil water holding capacities and crop production.
- In Michigan, cabbage and cucumber yields were doubled and potato yields rose 50 percent on earlier subsurface water retention technology-treated soils. These extraordinary yield increases for vegetables enabled farmers to recover the full cost of water retention membrane installation during the first year of production following installation.
- The long-term investment of this zero-maintenance water conservation technology promises high return on investment for growers using irrigation and/or rain-fed agriculture along with improved soil quality and other ecological benefits.
(Contributed by Kathy Walsh, MSU Office of VP of Research)
MSU AgBioResearch scientist Bruce Dale admits he is stubborn. It’s an attribute that has led him to pioneering work in cellulosic ethanol and international recognition for his biofuels research. Currently he is working to commercialize a process he invented to convert cellulosic biomass into enhanced animal feed and sustainable biofuels.
“My lab strives to develop cost-effective and environmentally beneficial ways to take non-food plant material called cellulosic biomass -- things like straws, grasses and woody materials -- and convert them first into sugars and then into fuels and chemicals,” said Dale, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science. “One of the key technical problems with doing that is that, though there are a lot of sugars in plant materials, they are chemically and physically bound and structured in such a way that you cannot easily use them. You have to be able to break down the biomass into simple sugars so they can be converted to a biofuel.”
In the early 1980s, Dale developed a process called ammonia fiber expansion (AFEX) to achieve this. The process has since been refined. (He calls the current version the original’s great grandchild.) AFEX uses ammonia and water under moderate pressure and heat to break plant material down into an intermediate form from which sugars are more easily produced. They can then be converted into chemicals and fuels that can replace oil and natural gas.
“We recently took a major step forward in developing a commercial process when Michigan Biotechnology Institute (MBI) obtained more than $5 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and the MSU Foundation to build a pilot-scale AFEX reactor at its Lansing, Michigan, facility,” Dale said.
MBI is a biotechnology company focused on developing and commercializing sustainable bio-based technologies. “AFEX” is now a trademark of MBI. Dale is working closely with MBI on the scale-up process.
“The things that work on a lab scale seldom work exactly the same way in commercial-scale equipment,” Dale said. “The challenge has been to find a low-cost way to do on a very large scale what has been accomplished on the laboratory scale. MBI personnel helped us enormously with that objective. They have the expertise needed for commercialization, and they have significantly enhanced the intellectual property portfolio on behalf of the university, so it is a great partnership.”
The first application for material produced with the AFEX process will be low-cost, digestible feedstock for beef and dairy animals. It turns out that the physical and chemical structure of straws and other plant materials that make them resistant to conversion to sugars to make fuels also makes them resistant to conversion in animals.
“By solving the problem of conversion of sugars to fuels, we are also solving the problem of conversion of sugars to animal feed,” Dale said. “The animal feed market is the easiest market to get into and the first one we would attempt to crack.”
Another challenge is the logistics of shipping raw biomass materials from farm to refinery. The untreated plant materials are lightweight and dusty, making transportation costly. After AFEX pretreatment, the plant material can be easily converted into stable, shippable materials. To do this, Dale proposes a series of depots near farms where the plant materials could be AFEX-treated and then turned into pellets that could be easily moved, much like corn grain. The nearly dust-free pellets could then be converted to biofuels at large processing plants or fed to animals.
Dale became interested in biofuels in the 1970s, during the second Arab oil embargo, when he was an undergrad at the University of Arizona and Americans started thinking about long-term fuel sources. An opportunity to study at Purdue University with Professor George Tsao, one of the leading biofuels researchers, eventually led to a doctorate and a career working on sustainable biofuels research.
Dale emphasizes that his research is with non-food plant materials. He hopes that will help alleviate concerns about the depletion of traditional food crops for use as fuel. He is working with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station to ensure that the cropping systems for biofuels manufacturing are environmentally beneficial and sustainable.
“In my lab, I would particularly like to mention the leadership of Dr. Ven Balan, an associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science, who has done so much to help in the laboratory work that underpins the AFEX technology, and also Dr. Seungdo Kim, also an associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science, who leads the life cycle assessment activities that help us understand how these processes can be made environmentally sustainable,” he said.
Dale views the scale-up of the AFEX process as a new way of using diverse biomass materials to provide food and fuel.
“We must have very large-scale, sustainable liquid fuels if we are to maintain our comfortable lifestyles, and the only way I know of to get such liquid fuels is from non-food plant material,” Dale said. “We have vehicles that can use biofuels, but we need to build our capacity to produce sustainable biofuels. I hope our research will add significantly to this movement.”
For more information, visit www.everythingbiomass.org.