Targeted focus and big ambitions
Nofima is investing over NOK 8 million kroner a year of its internal funds to develop cutting-edge expertise in selected research fields. The goals for this initiative are both bold and ambitious: Nofima Food Research Institute shall be commercially useful, relevant, innovative, and at the forefront of international research within spectroscopy technology and peptide technology.
This article is one in a series of four articles about Nofima´s strategic research projects Spectec og Peptek.
- Using modern, research-based processing technology and expertise, unused or left-over biomass (“residual raw materials”) can be transformed into new, marketable products.
- We coordinate, further develop and increase Nofima’s total expertise related to the future’s sustainable protein production.
- Over almost 40 years, Nofima has built up a strong scientific community in the field of spectroscopy – rapid and non-destructive measurements for process optimization.
- The institute possesses solid expertise within an international format and a modern instrument platform, which is unique in Norway and comparable to the best in Europe.
Nofima calls its Spectec and Peptek research projects “strategic research initiatives”.
Spectroscopy and peptide technology are big words to describe relatively straightforward ideas. The former means using light and smart sensors to measure the content and quality inside food at an industrial tempo without cutting it open. Rapid, non-destructive quality measurement using light. The latter is a “toolkit” to create value from residual raw materials from land and sea-based food production.
Both research fields are of great commercial potential for the food industry, which can apply the research-based knowledge generated to increase the value of both raw materials and residual biomass.
“Some companies in the food industry in Norway have already started digitalizing production, while others are more reticent. Nofima wants to play a central role in this development,” says Jens Petter Wold, senior scientist and head of Spectec.
“There is a lot of interest in making use of all of the raw materials from vegetables, meat and seafood in food production. We need to make better use of resources we are used to throwing away and fully exploit the raw materials. What we used to think of as waste we now call residual raw material or biomass. Our goal is to contribute to higher utilization and higher value of residual raw materials,” explains research director Ragnhild Dragøy Whitaker, head of the Peptek project.
Spectec has been running for one year, and Peptek for two. Nofima scientists are working programmatically and methodically to develop the use of residual raw materials and food quality measurement using light. By linking the development of knowledge in these two areas in a major internal initiative, Nofima is now at the forefront of research in the areas of spectroscopy and peptide technology. The projects are both interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral, in line with the reasoning behind the establishment of Nofima.
This is what cutting edge means – being innovative and at the forefront of developments.
“The two projects have proven very successful. We chose these two areas because we predicted that they would be of great relevance to the food-producing industry. Both Spectec and Peptek have already resulted in several new research projects and in solutions that can quickly be adopted in commercial production,” says a very satisfied Øyvind Fylling-Jensen, Managing Director of Nofima.
The project managers for Spectec and Peptek explain in more detail:
“We are working on rapid measurement methods based on spectroscopy and smart sensors. Basically, a modern way of managing processes. We measure food quality in respect of food items’ content of fat, water, protein, blood and other quality parameters – such as various antioxidants in extracts. The aim is to use sensors to determine the characteristics of the raw material during processing, so that the producers can then process the raw materials appropriately and deliver products with consistent quality while minimising waste,” explains project manager Jens Petter Wold.
Take the example of a producer who is going to make French fries out of potatoes. Using spectroscopy, the potatoes can be sorted in advance according to their quantity of dry matter or “solids”. Potatoes with a high solids content are processed one way, while those with a lower solids content are processed differently in terms of cooking time and temperature. In this way, the raw materials are used in the best possible way, which is important for both the company’s profitability and the environment.
This method can be used in a wide range of areas. Nofima has helped develop systems for measuring the quality of chicken fillets, determining the nutrient composition of shellfish, measuring the fat content of salmon and meat, and instant detection of blood and dark spots in fish fillets.
One of the main trends in society is digitalization. And manufacturing processes in the food industry are no exception. All kinds of processes are being digitalized. This means that, using smart sensors, food producers can access information about food items during the manufacturing process to a far greater extent than previously. This information can then be used to improve the management of processes. In addition, these kinds of sensors can gather information about variations in quality over time, which, if collated with information on, say, cultivation or feeding prior to the process and end quality and consumer acceptance after the process, can be used to improve the products. In this way, food producers can learn more about what causes quality variations – and the processes can be improved.
“Because we analyse so much along the way, we end up with what is known as ‘big data’ – huge volumes of collected data that, through systematic analysis, can lead to new knowledge and improved processes,” says Jens-Petter Wold.
Once crops have been harvested, fish filleted, and chicken cut up into marketable parts, food producers around the world are left with large volumes of what to date has been regarded and treated as waste. On a planet with an ever-growing population, and where food can be scarce, it is important to make full use of the raw materials.
“The proteins in the residual raw material are just as valuable as the proteins in the main products. It is simply a matter of extracting them and using them in a profitable and sensible manner,” says Ragnhild Dragøy Whitaker, head of marine biotechnology research at Nofima.
To explain what the residual raw materials can be used for – instead of being disposed of or destroyed – we can start with the highest paying products and work our way down:
- Cosmetics and health food products
- Food proteins and Omega-3 oils
- Pet food
- Feed for farmed fish
- General animal feed
- Combustion or biogas
For each raw material, we therefore ask the following questions: What is it? What is it made of? What can it be used for?
“In other words, you first need to understand what the biomass you have contains. We try to establish this using environment-friendly processes: we use enzymes, salt and sugar and gentle processes – nature’s own instruments – rather than harsh processes and harmful solvents, to develop high-quality new products,” Whitaker explains.
Spectroscopy is also very useful for determining the exact content of residual raw materials.
“On the basis of the raw materials we have, we want to know which process it is best to use that day and for that biomass. We must constantly monitor the process. Once again, Spectec comes in – to ensure optimal processing and utilization. Due to biological variations in the raw material, the utilization rate may vary by 4–5%. However, when you have 15 tonnes of biomass at the outset, this translates into large sums of money,” says Whitaker.
The outcome of a process is a product. It is important that the product is the same every day in terms of quality.
“The reason we use spectroscopy technology is that the results are instant and do not require time-consuming laboratory analysis. This means we can adjust the process along the way to ensure we get products of the same quality at each production,” the scientist explains.
Many food producers end up with large volumes of residual raw materials and do not know what to do with them. This is where Nofima can help – through the pilot National Facility for Marine Bioprocessing (Biotep) in Tromsø.
“We can provide input and run test processes, and then scale up processes from small-scale trials to full industrial scale,” explains Ragnhild Dragøy Whitaker.
Great advantages in sharing knowledge
Nofima has scientists in Tromsø, Ås, Bergen, Stavanger and Sunndalsøra. Through our strategic research projects, we collate and share knowledge within the Food Research Institute across traditional geographical and disciplinary divides. The project managers consider this a great advantage.
“We establish systems to share findings and information internally so we are not constantly having to reinvent the wheel,” explain Whitaker and Wold.
Knowing about knowledge elsewhere in the institute may also give rise to new synergies:
For example, chemistry can be combined with knowledge about sensory properties, different chemical methods can be used together, spectroscopy can be used in new projects, etc.
“This is only the beginning of what we can achieve by specialising our knowledge in these applicable, forward-looking areas,” the project managers agree.