Microwave technology reduces pathogens

In 2008, Texas Tech University formed MicroZap, a technology company to commercialize the microwave technology the university had developed to purify food and water. While the technology is just now picking up speed with manufacturers, the development of the technology actually began almost nine years ago when the University was approached by a group of scientists in Italy.

June 3, 2013

In 2008, Texas Tech University formed MicroZap, a technology company to commercialize the microwave technology the university had developed to purify food and water. While the technology is just now picking up speed with manufacturers, the development of the technology actually began almost nine years ago when the University was approached by a group of scientists in Italy. The University scientists realized they could expand upon the capabilities of the technology to heat, but not directly damage the DNA of a biological substance.

“We use electro-magnetic radiation (microwaves) which interacts with the molecules in the product or sample and will affect pathogens, bacteria, and mold in the different products we treat,” said Andreas Neuber, Associate Director of the Center for Pulsed Power and Power Electronics and AT&T Professor in the Whitacre College of Engineering. “The unit has levels on the outside similar to those produced when people use their microwave oven in the home. MicroZap technology is very similar, except that we work with much higher fields on the inside. We have been extremely successful treating mold in bread products and have extended the shelf-life of bread to 60 days.”

Don Stull is the CEO of MicroZap, as well as a licensed professional engineer who earned his Bachelor of Science in Engineering and his MBA from Texas Tech. Stull said they have expanded the technology to numerous other food products such as peanuts, produce, pet food, and non-food products such as mold on wine corks. “We’ve also broadened our ability to treat other dangerous pathogens such as listeria and E. coli,” said Stull.

In addition, the technology can be used to promote water security. Many areas of the world have water that is not healthy because it has germs, bacteria, parasites, viruses, and other things that make people sick. However, water is the most easily treated product in the microwave because the microwaves excite the water molecules more easily than other substances.

“One of our goals at MZ is to develop a unit that is fully solar powered and put this in a developing country with central location sites that could be run by citizens of that country as a source of income,” said Mindy Brashears, Professor in Food Microbiology and Food Safety, as well as Director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence (ICFIE). “People could bring their grain—and also water—there for treatment. People could put it through the process and come out with water that’s safe and drinkable and won’t cause illness.”

According to Brashears, there are about 150 companies at present interested in the microwave technology, using it in their facilities, and those are just for food-based products.

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