New IBRL extrusion equipment allows for more research opportunities, industry partners

New IBRL extrusion equipment allows for more research opportunities, industry partners
New IBRL extrusion equipment allows for more research opportunities, industry partners

URBANA, Ill. – A new extrusion line installation at the University of Illinois will usher in new research capabilities and industry partnerships. The equipment is housed in the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL), in partnership with the Food Science and Human Nutrition Pilot Processing Plant (FSHN-PPP) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).

The new, state-of-the-art line, made possible through donations of equipment and funding, will allow for advances in food processing, human and animal nutrition, and the creation of non-food products from raw agricultural materials.

Industry partners can see the new extrusion line at the upcoming Technology Open House on Oct. 3. Registration for this event is now open.

The twin-screw extruder and associated equipment will be housed on a newly constructed mezzanine level in the IBRL building on U of I’s Urbana campus. The line will be accessible to both university researchers and industry partners and startups looking for scalable equipment to pilot products, along with students in associated classes.

According to Brian Jacobson, assistant director of pilot plant operations, the new extrusion line initially came together through a partnership with the Buhler Group, a global leader in food processing technologies, including extrusion.

“Buhler provided us a tremendous education in modern extrusion technology through their engineering and technical staff, and advised what type of equipment investment we should pursue. They then connected us with Hormel Foods, who had an underutilized extruder that was perfect for our needs, which the company donated to our program,” he says, adding that it would have been just over $1 million to purchase the extruder new. The initial donation from Hormel Foods was critical in moving the project forward.

Mike Shaw, sales account manager for snacks and cereals at Buhler, calls the partnership between Buhler and ACES a nice synergy. “It’s nice to have a technical network and exchange of information. There’s a lot of different extrusion potential out there, in terms of materials, forms, shapes, and textures. As IBRL tests products, we can find out what’s been tried and what went well. It’s an opportunity for information sharing.”

The IBRL extruder is approximately half the size of near-production scale extrusion equipment at Buhler’s Food Application Center, Shaw says, which is an important benefit to the partnership.

“Sometimes we are contacted by smaller companies with tight budgets who need an economical path for testing a smaller amounts of ingredients or who may need an alternative for quick scheduling. We can now refer people to the University of Illinois. Between the two of us, we can come up with something that fits the customer. Companies can do testing in the IBRL facility and then scale up to [Buhler’s] unit.”

The new equipment replaces a nearly 30-year-old extrusion line that had been located in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Pilot Processing Plant. That equipment had become unusable and would have cost too much to repair, Jacobson explains. “It was the number one piece of equipment used by our researchers several years ago, and it was the only work we were doing with industry at the time,” he adds. “We are very excited to return this much-improved capability to our new facilities.”

Additional funding came from the U of I Student Sustainability Committee through a grant to purchase a new seasoning line for food processing. This will allow extruded products such as breakfast cereals and snacks to be appropriately finished with sugar sprays, salt, and other seasoning blends. “The completed products can then be served to the students in the University Housing Dining Halls and other locations on campus,” Jacobson adds.

Researchers and interested industry partners have awaited the availability of the new extrusion line.

“There is always interest from our food science and human nutrition faculty in having the ability to use extrusion as a delivery method to get bioactives or other nutrients or minerals into the gut,” Jacobson explains.

Using the department’s previous extrusion equipment, Juan Andrade, a food science and human nutrition (FSHN) professor, tested the possibility of using an extruded product as a delivery method for iron fortification in low-income countries.

Once the new equipment is online, Andrade says he intends to resume using extrusion for further research projects. As lead of the nutrition team at the Soybean Innovation Lab, some of the projects include the combination of soy as well as other legumes like lentils and chickpeas through extrusion, and processing cereal blends with texturized vegetable protein (TVP), a high protein soy product.

But to do that, Andrade says, an extruder with enhanced capabilities was needed.

“Extrusion adds a tremendous dimension to the portfolio of products that can be used by companies in low-income countries, especially in complementary and school feeding. I would love to be able to work with that,” he explains.

Beth Conerty, IBRL business development manager, also stresses the importance of finding new ways to use corn and soy in the state of Illinois. “Finding valuable end products for the two crops are extremely important for our business model. We are not limiting ourselves to those two crops, but there is a need for more value streams for these crops in Illinois specifically.”

Researchers Youngsoo Lee (food engineering) and Soo-Yeun Lee (sensory), both in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, also have collaborated to study the extrusion of high-protein snack products using soy-based ingredients, with funding from the Illinois Soybean Association. 

“Soy protein is a good quality plant-based protein and is widely used in a variety of food products. However, it is difficult to incorporate enough soy protein to create ‘high-protein’ extruded products due to the challenges in the texture and flavor of those products,” Youngsoo Lee explains.

Other non-food extrusion applications such as biodegradable packing peanuts made from cornstarch or biodegradable grocery bags are possible, and Conerty says the IBRL will be interested in exploring these products.

Further funding for the line also came from the FSHN department, with IBRL offering up an additional $900,000 to purchase related parts that go into the line and to fund the mezzanine construction that was installed in the IBRL building.

Additionally, Buhler Aeroglide, a subsidiary of Buhler, donated a fluidized bed drier needed for drying the product after extrusion, and the Kellogg Company donated a product packaging line.

All in, Jacobson says the extrusion line would have cost nearly $3.5 million to install with all new equipment. “The strong relationships with our industry partners reduced our cash investment to around $1 million and provided critical training for our technical staff,” he adds.

Jacobson says IBRL and FSHN-PPP will hold extrusion workshops in the facility using existing classrooms and new equipment. Prospective attendees could include small companies interested in making extruded products, new extrusion technicians, etc. “Our relationships with industry partners allow us to bring in industry expertise to guest lecture at these workshops or student classes,” he adds.

The IBRL was designed to scale bioprocessing technologies and help bridge the gap between academic research and industrial commercialization, through resources of facility space, equipment use, support staff, and access to the intellectual capital housed at the University of Illinois.

“The new extrusion line will play a tremendous role in advancing these technologies,” says German Bollero, associate dean for research in the College of ACES. “We are grateful for the gifts of equipment and funding that have made this project possible.” 

Photos of the extrusion line are available at: