Research in biosensors and biomaterials and a patented method for gas permeation follow on the heels of a major overhaul to the curriculum in 2012 that resulted in a Packaging Engineering Degree.
I have visited a number of packaging schools over the years from Florida to California including a memorable visit to the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL, 10 years ago. I recall Bruce Welt, Ph.D., as an enthusiastic, technically-minded associate professor who was eagerly building up the program, including gaining a foothold in R&D testing radio-frequency identification.
Much has changed these past few years including the fact Welt dropped the associate and is now a professor. One thing hasn't changed: Based on an overdue reconnection made late last month, he’s still got a lot on the ball in driving the UF program forward.
First a history lesson
According to Welt, the UF packaging program underwent a major overhaul in 2012 when it moved, academically, from UF’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences to the College of Engineering. The “Science” based minor has been suspended in favor of true Packaging Engineering. Almost immediately after beginning the Packaging Science program in fall 2001, industry had been suggesting more technical and engineering content, Welt relates.
“As with many other packaging programs, we started out without even a calculus mathematics requirement, but by 2011, we had already added Calculus 1 and Calculus 2 as requirements,” he explains. “Since we were already attracting so many engineers to our minor, we encouraged Differential Equations as a technical elective. By Fall 2012, we adopted a full-blown engineering curriculum that is built upon UF’s Biological Engineering degree program enhanced with technical packaging courses.”
The rigorous engineering degree also requires Calculus 3 and Differential equations and core engineering courses in thermodynamics, transport phenomena (heat and mass transfer), fluid dynamics, engineering economics, etc. The engineering curriculum requires 128 credits to graduate whereas the science major required only 120. “And we are considering a request to go to 132 credits in the near future,” Welt adds.
Credits where credit is due
Even with the additional credits, Welt had to reduce the number of packaging specific courses in order to be able to fit all of the engineering content. “This was mitigated by the fact that Packaging Engineering students now have the technical prerequisites to take packaging engineering relevant courses from other engineering departments such as Computer Aided Design (CAD) from the Mechanical Engineering Department, Polymers from the Material Science and Engineering Department and Power, Machinery and Robotics from the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department,” he states. “Our current packaging engineering specific courses include our introductory course, PKG3001 Principles of Packaging, our product-package interactions course, PKG3103 Food Packaging, our distribution course, PKG4008 Distribution and Transport Packaging, our packaging software course, PKG4101C Computer Tools for Packaging, and our machinery, packaging line design and production course, PKG4011 Packaging Production and Processing.
“Today, all undergraduate packaging students must be accepted through the college of engineering in order to pursue packaging engineering. Since it is so difficult just to get into UF, we have always enjoyed strong and technically savvy students, but not all of them were interested in the ‘engineering’ side of packaging. Our packaging engineering students always expected to be engineers and they are intent upon building the necessary tool set to succeed in that role. While it is still early, feedback from employers who hire our students or take them as interns/co-op employees has been very positive. Apparently, they like what they are seeing.”
Permeation patent commercialized
Welt points with pride to the fact that the research program was recently awarded U.S. Patent #8,567,236 titled “Method and apparatus for measuring gas transmission rate of semi-barrier materials.” The technology represents a simpler and less expensive method for measuring gas permeation in packaging than the currently popular method described by ASTM D-3985.
The process for approving a new ASTM method based on this approach is in the works and the technology has been licensed to Oxysense, Inc., Dallas, TX, which is already offering products incorporating this technology for measuring oxygen transmission rate of packaging films and packages.
“We are continuing to refine and improve the technology and expect another important patent, which just may revolutionize the permeation market, to issue soon,” Welt reports.
Growth in biomaterials and biosensors
Because UF’s Packaging Engineering program resides in the Agricultural & Biological Engineering Department, Welt says it makes it easy for them to collaborate in areas related to biomaterials and biosensors.
“We have been growing algae in our packaging engineering lab for several years now and have been making progress in optimizing lipid production from sea-water diatoms,” Welt says. “Algal lipids are viewed as the most promising path toward biologically produced commodity plastics such as PET (e.g., The Plant Bottle). Additionally, we are collaborating with researchers seeking applications for lignin, which is an abundant by-product of agricultural production.
“Currently, we are working on development of sustainable water and grease coatings for paperboard and corrugated materials. Focused on development of biosensors, the faculty sees many opportunities to collaborate on problems related to smart packaging. Work is also being conducted to develop embedded color-changing sensors that detect the freshness of fish.”
For more information, visit the website for the University of Florida’s Packaging Program.