Good nutrition is essential for physical and cognitive development and general well being. Nutritional challenges are particularly acute in low-resource settings of the developing world, which are often challenged by growing populations, inadequate infrastructure, limited education, poverty and little access to energy and appropriate productivity, preservation and transport technologies. The result is that millions suffer from shortage of food and/or inadequate nutrients in the foods they consume. Paradoxically, much of the food produced in the world is wasted.
While the root causes of food and nutritional insecurity are complex, engineering solutions to enhance agricultural productivity, food preservation and nutritional content of foods have potential for considerable global impact.
Our multidisciplinary team is currently focused on three areas including: improving agricultural productivity, reducing waste through enhanced food preservation and supply chain interventions, and development of nutrient-enhanced foods. Specific research projects include the following:
Water-saving Irrigation Technologies: We aim to develop ‘smart’, cost-effective, low water use irrigation technologies to improve food production. Sufficient and timely irrigation is key to agricultural productivity, however its use is challenged by water scarcity and water usage inefficiency. We are developing technology that uses information on the crop, inexpensive environmental sensors, and soil moisture sensors to determine water requirement, and apply water as needed through efficient drip or trickle irrigation methods to maximize production. Drip or trickle irrigation methods can be as much as 33% more efficient in water use as well as being able to carry fertilizers directly to the root. Lead investigator: Prof. Amy Bilton.
Soil Nutrient Testing: Soil nutrient levels need to be maintained at optimum levels to sustain or increase crop yields and make optimal use of fertilizers. The absence of soil nutrient level analysis, leads to overuse of fertilizers, which has considerable adverse environmental impacts (e.g. contamination of groundwater, increased biological oxygen demand, etc.). Currently, soil nutrient test kits are very expensive for many in developing nations, are often time-consuming, and/or lack accuracy/precision. This project is focused on developing a quick and cost-effective soil nutrient diagnostic kit on a microfluidic platform, to alleviate stated challenges. Lead investigator: Prof. Arun Ramachandran
Nutrient Enhanced Foods & Drinks: While the health benefits of vegetable and fruit consumption are well documented, most of the world population does not consume enough fruits and vegetables to take advantage of those benefits. Some of the most valuable phytochemicals obtained from fruits and vegetables, such as carotenoids, phytosterols, and essential oils represent only a small fraction of the fruit, and only a sub-fraction of these phytochemicals are extracted after cooking or raw consumption. Our team is working on lipid-based extraction media that achieves nearly complete extraction at room temperature using a mixture of food grade lipids. The extracted phytochemicals are encapsulated into stable powders that can be incorporated into fortified foods. The technology is expected to reduce costs of transportation and waste (rotten fruits and vegetables not sold in time), take advantage of byproducts such as pomace, and facilitate the incorporation of the benefits of the phytochemicals into staple foods and drinks at a fraction of the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables. These fortified staple foods are ideal vehicles to deliver the health benefits of phytochemicals to a large fraction of the population, especially in developing countries, arctic and remote communities, or emergency relief situations. Lead Investigators: Profs. Edgar Acosta, Levente Diosady & Venkat Rao.
Novel Food Preservation Coating: Our aim is to develop bio-based coatings that can be directly applied to fresh food products thereby reducing food spoilage, as well as cellulose packaging materials to improve barrier characteristics and recycling. Safe, self-assembling proteins as well as under utilized fractions of plant biomass such as xylan, are being developed for this purpose. Profs. Emma Master & Elizabeth Edwards.
Food Supply Chain Improvement: This project is focused on understanding the complex interactions among various stakeholders in food supply chains, and identifying optimal supply chain designs for developing countries, with considerations of localization and incentive alignment. Improvements in food supply chain will reduce the food mileage, resulting in less demand for infrastructure and reduced food waste. Profs. Chi-Guhn Lee & Timothy Chan.