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ASoojin Jun and Kara Yamada
Associate Professor Soojin Jun and Kara Yamada work on pathogen-detecting bio-nanotubes.

Processing lab engineers better, safer food handling

With Japanese visitors eager to buy Big Island Abalone products as omiyage, the Kona company turned to Associate Professor Soojin Jun. He had worked with NASA on flexible food packaging using retort pouches — vacuum-packed, steam-processed “canning” minus the heavy, landfill-clogging metal containers.

It’s just one of the technologies Dr. Jun’s Food Processing Laboratory explores. Jun and master’s student Jin Hong Mok work on a promising supercooling method, which combines pulsed electric and magnetic fields to reach subzero temperatures turning without liquids solid. A frozen chicken breast remains pliable, fruit thaws without turning mushy, produce can be stored and transported without losing its fresh-food character.

Jin Hong Mok, Soojin Jun, and Karen Yamada
Researchers Jin Hong Mok, Soojin Jun, and Karen Yamada.

Jun’s lab also developed a patented technology that combines ohmic heating by electric current (efficient for liquids) with microwave heating (good for solids). Current methods for foods such as soups require heating components separately, which is inefficient, or else overheating solids, which degrades quality and nutrition.

“I’m not a foodie guy,” Jun insists — just an electrical engineer at heart. Originally inspired by the automation in a Korean tofu factory, he sees similar potential for companies processing local foods like poi and kava. “There are so many things you can do as an engineer.”

Lab member Kara Yamada helped develop recipes for UH’s Kulanui line of dressings and sauces as a CTAHR undergraduate. After Meadow Gold and Hawaiian Host internships shifted her focus to quality assurance and food safety, she’s doing her master’s thesis on carbon nanotube–based biosensors to fabricate a sensitive, portable biosensor to rapidly detect food-borne pathogens. “If we could add action so the sensor not only detects but also neutralizes the pathogen, how cool would that be?” muses Jun.

Supported by more than $1.5 million in USDA, industry, and international grants since 2008, his team also researches pathogen-fighting technologies such as laser decontamination of fresh produce and nano-material coatings to reduce bacteria-promoting biofilm buildup on the surfaces that come in contact with food during processing. He’d also like to explore biodegradable or edible films as waste-reducing packaging.

Source:  This research highlight is part of the inaugural issue of “CTAHR IN FOCUS: Highlights of recent impacts in teaching, research, and extension” (access the full document here). Learn more about CTAHR on their website: http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/