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Microwaves, Climate Change

Posted by | August 17, 2011

Reducing Foodborne Illness With Microwaves Is Focus of $5 Million Grant

Dr. Juming Tang is a professor in WSU's Department of Biological Systems Engineering who led a team of university, industry and U.S. military scientists to develop an innovative microwave food-processing technology. Photo by Brian Charles Clark.
Dr. Juming Tang is a professor in WSU's Department of Biological Systems Engineering who led a team of university, industry and U.S. military scientists to develop an innovative microwave food-processing technology. Photo by Brian Charles Clark.

Using newly developed microwave technologies to control bacteria and other microbes that can cause food-borne illnesses and deaths is the focus of a $5 million, multi-year, multi-institutional grant recently awarded to Washington State University and its partners by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“While the U.S. food supply is generally considered to be one of the safest in the world, approximately 48 million Americans become sick each year due to food-borne illnesses,” said Dr. Catherine Woteki, USDA chief scientist and under secretary for research, education and economics. “These grants support the development of a more complete understanding of the sources and implications of microbial contamination and will promote the adoption of new food safety strategies and technologies. The goal is to greatly improve the safety of our food supply and, ultimately, save lives.”

WSU scientists will join forces with researchers at the University of Tennessee, North Carolina State University, the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Eastern Regional Center and the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center. The team will look at how best to expand the commercial possibilities of microwave technologies to control harmful bacterial and viral pathogens in packaged foods. They specifically will be working with ready-to-eat foods, deli meats and seafood.

The award drew praise and approval from both the public and private sector.

“I have been proud to secure investments in this great project, which provided the foundational research that allowed WSU to have the expertise to win this competitive grant.  This new technology will keep families safe and will create good jobs right here in Washington state,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. “WSU is doing great work turning top-notch research into products that will increase food safety for America’s consumers and boost the local economy, and I am proud to be their partner in those efforts.”

Juming Tang, a professor in WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering who led a team of university, industry and U.S. military scientists to develop the technology., said the project has several key components. “The goal of this integrated project is to bridge the scientific and engineering gaps that currently limit commercial applications of microwave technologies for the control of bacterial and viral pathogens in packaged foods,” he said. “We are pleased to have been able to team up with leading experts in food microbiology at the University of Tennessee, food safety risk assessment at USDA-ARS Eastern Regional Center, sensory studies at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center and project progress assessment at North Carolina State, as well with our industrial partners, including Seafoods Products Association and the International Microwave Power Institute.”

Dr. Juming Tang is a professor in WSU's Department of Biological Systems Engineering who led a team of university, industry and U.S. military scientists to develop an innovative microwave food-processing technology. Photo by Brian Charles Clark.
Dr. Juming Tang is a professor in WSU's Department of Biological Systems Engineering who led a team of university, industry and U.S. military scientists to develop an innovative microwave food-processing technology. Photo by Brian Charles Clark.

P. Michael Davidson, professor and head of food science and technology at UT, said, “We are extremely pleased to be working with someone of the caliber of Dr. Juming Tang as well as the other outstanding collaborators on this exciting research project. The information generated, along with the processes and equipment developed, will go a long way towards providing increased protection of consumers from food-borne illnesses caused by bacterial and viral pathogens.”

Specifically, the scientists will study:

  • What microwave-based pasteurization processes are required to inactivate high-risk bacterial and viral pathogens;
  • Improving microwave systems designs; and
  • Developing and validating the processing protocols needed to control pathogens in a variety of ready-to-eat foods.

–Kathy Barnard

Watch a short video and learn more about the microwave technology Tang and his team developed by visiting http://bit.ly/tangmw.

Climate-Change Research Grant to Support Study of Nitrogen, Water Use Efficiency in Farming

David Brown, associate professor of crop and soil sciences at WSU, is the project's director.
David Brown, associate professor of crop and soil sciences at WSU, is the project's director.

A collaborative Washington State University study of how nitrogen and water availability vary within Palouse wheat fields will ultimately help farmers better manage nitrogen fertilizer application on their croplands and reduce one of Earth’s top four greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide.

U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded a $4.6 million, five-year grant through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative to researchers from WSU, University of Idaho and the USDA Agricultural Research Service to conduct the study. The project will take place at the Cook Agronomy Farm outside of Pullman, with further testing at eight additional farms in the Palouse region.

Agriculture is primarily responsible for human-induced nitrous oxide emissions into the atmosphere, said David Brown, associate professor of crop and soil sciences at WSU and the project’s director. Atmospheric concentrations of the gas have consistently risen for decades mostly due to the increased use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers since World War II. Yet these fertilizers have also played a crucial role in cereal yield increases over this period, and reducing their application uniformly could have serious consequences for crop production.

WSU scientists are joining forces with scientists from other institutions to study water and nitrogen use in Palouse wheat fields.
WSU scientists are joining forces with scientists from other institutions to study water and nitrogen use in Palouse wheat fields.

Therefore, site-specific information on water, soil and crops must also be factored in to precisely manage nitrogen applications within fields, Brown said. Major project components include:

  • Landscape analyses to generate maps of soil and crop properties as well as soil moisture dynamics.
  • Modeling to simulate crop growth, organic matter decomposition, water movement, nutrient uptake and more.
  • Experiments to determine yields and greenhouse gas emissions as a function of crop density, water availability, temperature and soil properties.

“The strategy is to apply nitrogen more efficiently,” Brown said. “Apply it only where it’s needed, as much as needed, and no more. In the end, we have a much better chance of producing real tools for farmers to improve nitrogen-use efficiency, optimize profits and reduce nitrous oxide emissions.”

The research team chose the Palouse region of eastern Washington and northern Idaho because it has some of the hilliest cropland in the country, which contributes substantially to soil variability and water movement. In addition, the region also has a mean annual precipitation ranging from 200 to 700 millimeters over just 100 miles or two counties, Whitman and Latah.

“We mimic the Great Plains but in a much shorter geographic area,” Brown said. “A 100-mile drive across the Palouse is equivalent to a 500-mile drive across the Great Plains to get the same range in precipitation.”

–Nella Letizia

WSU scientist Chad Kruger recently gave a talk to students at Othello High School about the potential effects of climate change on Washington agriculture; On Solid Ground was there to video the talk which is online at http://bit.ly/krugerclimate.