Physics professor Greg Kenning guided Bianca Faceto Dias, an exchange student from Brazil studying chemistry, in use of the electron-beam evaporator. Photo: Keith Boyer
Nanoparticle Research Targets Food Waste, Leverages Learning
When Neil Armstrong fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon, his small step set a higher challenge for the next generations of Americans.
“If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we…?” has become a rallying cry.
Sometimes, it’s a mild plea for production of some mundane convenience of life. But often it’s a self-imposed question asked in the spirit of those running the space program. Far from global bragging rights, the goal is improvement of life around the globe.
Count among those innovators the students and faculty at IUP, including those whose developments in the basement of Weyandt Hall hold potential roles in a war against food waste.
Physics professor Greg Kenning has pioneered the IUP research of a technology that measures perishability of foods and other products. The centerpiece of the research is an electronic time-temperature indicator that this spring was granted a patent from the US Patent Office.
Specifically, the electronic TTI is designed as a microchip to be attached to labels and containers of milk products during the packaging process. Electronic reading devices, such as smartphones, could pick up data from the chip and show the product’s remaining usable life in real time—often quite different from what the “sell by” date stamped on the product implies.
Generally, the components in the time-temperature indicator can be designed to mimic the decay of foods and other perishable products.
Very broadly, the development represents the work of many students from Kenning’s physics courses. It’s backed by resources of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, which is placing greater emphasis on new technologies developed at the state universities. It also reflects a comprehensive vision at IUP and an environment that allows creativity and imagination to flourish.
Kenning’s research in nanoparticle technology, the science at the root of the electronic time-temperature indicator, dates to the 1980s. After joining the IUP faculty in 2004, he pursued grants to begin a nanoparticle program on campus and, about six years ago, launched a study of the time-related deterioration of magnetic properties of cobalt, antimony, and other elements.
Kenning said he and his students in the study noticed the nanoparticles’ properties were changing over time. Instead of being discouraged by the unexplained decay of the atomic materials, they looked for patterns and constants in the kinds of changes they saw. Then they introduced temperature changes to the mix.
“We found this effect, and it became clear that this effect may be useful,” Kenning said. “I went to PASSHE with it, before I wrote the first paper, because part of your due diligence is to answer, ‘Is this in any way useful?’ So I thought, ‘Yes, this could be very useful,’ more useful than I could even possibly think at the time.”
While his nanoparticle studies have gone on for a decade, the pace of the work hasn’t been slow in terms of scientific developments in that time.
In his lab, Greg Kenning experimented with magnetic systems known as spin glasses. With him, from left, were Matthew Knepper, an MBA student working with Kenning on a business plan; Fagner Garrote Da Silva, a sophomore computer science major; and Brian Walters, a sophomore physics major. Photo: Keith Boyer
Today, IUP physics labs have equipment that helps students see their work in ways not possible when the project began.
“What made this all possible was a National Science Foundation grant, an equipment grant, and one of the basic things we got was a vibrating sample magnetometer. This allowed us to do the magnetic measurements, the resistance measurements, control the temperature, and so forth,” Kenning said. “We had the equipment to make samples but not measure them, so that’s why we wrote this grant.”
And what forms the electronic TTI is molecular in scale.
“It’s a whisper of material,” Kenning said. “It’s a layer of antimony, a layer of cobalt that breaks up into nanoparticles, and another layer of antimony. So it’s a thin film, about 20 atoms thick.
“You can’t see this. It’s hundreds of times smaller than what you can see with an optical microscope. You need to see it with electron microscopes.”
Students Ray Sachs M’06 and Christopher Heidt ’04, M’09 had early roles in the research. After graduating from IUP, both went on to earn PhDs at the University of California at Riverside, Kenning said.
When Kenning received the
Graduate Dean’s Award for Outstanding Commitment to Sponsored Programs in 2014, he also included in the recognition undergraduate researchers Jared Phillips ’14 and Steve Hensley ’14 and graduate students Michael Madden M’15, Benjamin Grove, Aaron Barnes, Kazi Reaz M’14, James Diodato M’14, and Talal Alshammary M’14.
Therein lies the luxury for students taking part in research at IUP, according to
President Michael Driscoll.
“One of the things IUP has been known for, and has valued for a long time, is the way we have faculty members interacting directly with students,” Driscoll said. “We’re a doctoral/research university, which means we have faculty who are doing cutting-edge, leading-edge research, but they’re doing it with undergraduates and graduate students together as a team.”
The clear benefit for professors is personally directing students in research experiments.
“At the same time, students in that circumstance are really learning what it’s like to be physicists, because they’re working with an experienced physicist,” Driscoll said. “They’re not just memorizing a formula from a book, but they’re actually doing science. And I think that’s something very special here. It really leverages the learning, improves that significantly, and it gives faculty a whole bunch of people to help them move their good ideas forward.”
It’s a distinct difference from large universities nationally known as research institutions, according to Hilliary Creely, IUP’s assistant dean for research.
“For example, at a research university, the faculty member might be teaching only one class each semester and committing the rest of the time to engaging in research, scholarship, or creative activities and pursuing external funding for those endeavors,” she said. “Students may or may not get to participate in a meaningful way in those projects. But at IUP, our faculty is in the classroom working with students, getting them excited about creating new knowledge, and learning and developing skills.”
As Kenning’s nanoparticle research progressed, Creely’s office supported the pursuit of a patent for the new invention.
Many IUP professors over the years have been awarded patents, but most have independently obtained patents outside their academic work or collaborated with teams of innovators who have made advances outside the IUP campus—many in the mining and drilling industries, Creely said.
But Kenning’s patent is the first awarded in many years for work done at IUP.
Driscoll said the State System also made the patent possible through a technology-transfer system in partnership with Penn State University that helps shepherd professors’ inventions through the patent process and to market.
“The reality is that it’s expensive to manage some of the basics of technology transfer to get these ideas out of the lab. That requires very special expertise,” Driscoll said. “PASSHE has entered into an agreement with Penn State and its tech-transfer arm to leverage their experience where it makes sense to do so. We don’t have enough volume across the System to hire our own set of patent attorneys, but we are able to leverage the great experience that Penn State’s larger operation has available to it.”
“Nanotechnology is a new frontier, and a frontier that is open to a huge amount of new discovery.”
The entrepreneurial spirit at State System universities also got a boost with the enactment of the Higher Education Modernization Act of 2012. HEMA provides better footing for professors and students to commercialize their campus innovations.
For Kenning, the work is far from over.
Unlike President Kennedy’s directive to NASA, creating a milk freshness gauge was not a stated mission.
“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen when they make stuff, so you make it and look at it,” Kenning said. The excitement, he said, is finding new and meaningful ways to use what’s been revealed.
“I can see where [nanoparticle research] is going to be a field that’s going to last 100 years. There are many, many, many things to be discovered in this.”
Kenning envisions more uses for the principles that he and his students discovered. Devising more ways to measure the freshness of foods would allow better inventory controls and less waste of perishable products.
“There’s a report by the National Resources Defense Council showing we waste 20 percent of all milk, 20 percent of all meat, and 60 percent of all fish,” Kenning said. A coalition of European governments invested $20 million to find a way to gauge the freshness of fish because of the enormous losses.
Fine-tuning the electronic TTI could make it work on fish, meat, and other food products and give shoppers some guidance in the supermarkets. If a refrigerated product had been left out at warmer temperatures during transportation from plant to store, the TTI—with a matching rate of magnetic deterioration—would reflect the product’s actual shelf life.
Imagine, too, Kenning said, an advanced refrigerator in the home that could take periodic readings of TTIs on all the products inside, generate an inventory of all the foods and how soon they will expire, and upload the data.
“If you have a smart fridge, it could regularly update itself on what the status is of all the food you have in there, send it to the Internet, and you could read it as an app in your iPhone,” Kenning said. “So you could get a warning that your milk is going to expire in a day and a half.”
Imagine further, Kenning said, a smart oven that could read the embedded TTIs in foods being cooked. A readout showing the inside of a Thanksgiving turkey could show it reached the right temperature for the right time to be declared done.
All these potential uses make the electronic TTI desirable.
“If it becomes a product, it’s going to be a consumer-driven product. It produces consumer information,” Kenning said.
And the price to add the TTI to perishable food products would be as little as a few pennies, he estimated. “People would be willing to pay more for their milk with this piece of information,” he said.
Reaching for those possibilities, and others not even imagined, means plenty of research has yet to be done in Weyandt Hall.
“It’s very exciting for the student. Nanotechnology is a new frontier, and a frontier that is open to a huge amount of new discovery,” Kenning said. “I look at it like electricity in the 1700s.”
Driscoll praised the work for the imagination involved and its potential benefit.
“They go from this very, very straightforward kind of playing around with some materials property to finding this new idea and connecting that with something that would be useful to you and me,” he said.
“The genius is the hard work that gets to the discovery and then the great thinking that says, ‘Why do we care about this? How do we make use of this?’” Driscoll said. “And I think they’re just at the beginning of that with this first application. It’s really cool.”
Kind of like putting a man on the moon.