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New Food - Processing protein powders with the vacuum expansion method

Whether it's a plant-based lactose-free milk alternative, vegan ice cream or meat-free steak, the range of non-animal foods on offer is constantly growing. The most important ingredients in these "new food" products are proteins, so far mostly plant-based. However, the processing of protein powders is challenging: to ensure optimum product quality, the proteins must be fully digested, starches must be broken down to the required extent and agglomerates and foam must be avoided during production. All of this is achieved by processing protein powders in a vacuum expansion process.

A glance at the shelves of an ordinary supermarket or discount store shows that vegan foods are taking up more and more space alongside animal products such as meat, sausages and dairy products. In addition to oat, soy, rice, coconut or almond drinks, plant-based products such as peas, lentils, adzuki, fava, cashews or peanuts are increasingly being offered as an alternative to animal milk. There is also a wide range of other vegan products, from whipped cream and yogurt to spreads. While plant-based proteins are still the most important ingredients in "new food" products, other types of protein are likely to become increasingly important in the future. This applies in particular to fermented proteins: These proteins, which are produced by bacteria or yeasts, have a neutral taste, are inexpensive and resource-saving to produce, are easy to digest and contain all essential amino acids as well as vitamin B12, which is essential for the human organism.

[Translate to Englisch:] YSTRAL Conti-TDS Ansicht der Mischkammer Fig. 2: With the Ystral Conti-TDS powder wetting and dispersing machine, even hard-to-wet, dusty or sticky powders containing protein can be dispersed agglomerate-free. The particles can be broken down in cold or warm liquid.

New types of food require new technologies

What the alternative proteins used in the new food segment have in common is that they are difficult to process and have extremely different characteristics: Wheat protein, for example, is extremely cohesive, while soy protein is extremely adhesive. If protein powders from seeds, grains, nuts or pulses are incorporated into water, they tend to gelatinize, stick together and foam. On the one hand, the proteins are sensitive to shear, but at the same time require high shear when dispersed in the liquid. Shearing is therefore necessary under controlled conditions, in a very short period of time. For optimum product quality, it is crucial that agglomerates present in the powder are completely broken up as soon as they enter the liquid and that the formation of new agglomerates is avoided. Otherwise, these agglomerates must subsequently be broken down by prolonged stirring and time-consuming post-dispersion - with negative consequences for the product quality: dispersing the agglomerates damages the quaternary and tertiary structure of the hydrated protein and uncontrollably impairs viscosity and texture. Avoiding agglomerates is also very important with regard to the starch contained in the powder. Starch is usually broken down by enzymes, occasionally also by acids. If the powder particles are already separated before the liquid is introduced and strongly dispersed during the powder application, the enzymatic degradation of the starch is accelerated. With conventional agitators, injectors or in-line blenders, however, the particles always come into contact with the liquid as a compact bulk. This leads to stable, partially wetted agglomerates that are difficult to break down. Post-dispersion then not only costs an enormous amount of time and energy - the air contained in the protein powder is also dispersed into unwanted microfoam in this way. If protein powder is introduced into the liquid in conventional processing methods, it either flocculates completely or sticks to the machine parts. This leads to local overheating, discoloration or even burns on rotating parts and a slightly burnt taste of the end products. A large proportion of the insufficiently digested proteins are ultimately filtered out unused.

Separation of the powder particles by vacuum expansion

These problems of conventional process engineering solutions are avoided when using the vacuum expansion method from mixing and dispersion technology specialist Ystral: The air contained in the powder is expanded many times over, which increases the distances between the particles enormously. The primary protein particles are separated by the suction vacuum, completely wetted on first contact with the liquid, dispersed in situ under vacuum and then hydrated under pressure without agglomerates. The entire process takes two to three hundredths of a second and the heat input is minimal. Each individual powder particle is wetted and dispersed in this way. The texture of the protein remains undamaged and the process time is enormously reduced compared to conventional technologies. Due to the intensive dispersion, significantly fewer enzymes are required to break down the starch compared to conventional processes. The air contained in the powder is separated from the much heavier dispersion by the centrifugal effect of the high-speed rotor and coalesces into large air bubbles that can easily escape from the process vessel. In this way, the foam that occurs during protein processing is almost completely avoided.

Avoid agglomerates

Inline dispersing technologies based on vacuum expansion during powder application achieve complete deagglomeration and wetting of the particles within microseconds. Mills are only required in exceptional cases. The air contained in the powder is expanded many times over by the suction vacuum directly in the wetting and dispersing zone, which increases the distances between the particles enormously. The particles are separated and fluidized. The machine generates a specific liquid surface area of around 1 million m2/min. This is more than the powder surface to be wetted and around 10,000 times as much as a dissolver. Powder and liquid only come into contact in the wetting chamber - under maximum vacuum and maximum turbulence. In the dispersing zone, the powder particles have the greatest possible distance from each other and can therefore be completely wetted and dispersed individually. In the Conti-TDS inline dispersing machine from ystral, the wetting and dispersing processes are concentrated in a dispersing zone with an effective volume of only around 1/4 l. Compared to a dissolver operated in a container, such an inline disperser generates a volume-specific output that is around 30,000 times higher. At the same time, the inline disperser uses a rotor-stator system to generate a thousand times higher shear forces. The dwell time is extremely short, so that only a fraction of the energy is required.

No additional air input

Another problem with dissolver technology is the introduction of air. On the one hand, this is caused by the powder materials themselves. Light powders have a volume proportion of over 90 % air. If this air is dispersed together with the powder particles, microfoam is created. If the powder is fed into an open container from above, air bubbles are also formed, through which additional air is introduced. In the newer processes, the powder is therefore sucked directly into the liquid externally in a circuit. There is neither the formation of bubbles nor is additional air introduced. During powder wetting in a vacuum expansion process with a rotor-stator system, the air contained in the powder is separated from the significantly heavier dispersion by the centrifugal effect of the fast-running rotor and coalesces into large air bubbles. These are then conveyed together with the liquid flow to the process container, where they can easily escape.

Efficient mixing technology

Modern jet mixers focus on process intensification and local concentration of machine performance by combining a turbulent micro-mixing zone in their mixing head with virtually turbulence-free vertical macro-mixing of the entire container contents. Due to the turbulence generated in this micromixing zone, such mixers initially require more power than a simple conventional agitator. However, as the mixing times are reduced by up to 90 % with a jet mixer, depending on the product, the energy requirement is less than a third despite the two to three times higher output and the product is actually completely homogeneously mixed at the end of the mixing process - without unmixed zones and sediments. Consistent results are achieved regardless of the batch size and the fill level in the container. Jet mixers can be installed in a container from above, below or from the side. On average, processes with inline dispersers for powder application and jet mixers save around two thirds of the energy previously required. In the production of pigment pastes, where there is no need for a mill, the savings are even higher: 85% for white pigment paste and 90% for black pigment paste.

Better utilization of raw materials

In the vacuum expansion process, powder materials can be processed without dust and loss, whereas solids are always lost when the powder is added via a chute with an extraction system. In addition, the quantity of raw materials used can be reduced due to better particle disintegration. For wall paints, the amount of titanium dioxide can be reduced by up to 8 % while maintaining the same color strength and hiding power; for printing inks, the savings are even greater. In addition, powder materials can be wetted and dispersed in an optimum sequence for the product. In a dissolver process, the thickening agent must first be added due to the high viscosity required. This not only hinders the wetting of very fine powders. As thickeners are often shear-sensitive in the paint and varnish sector, thickeners introduced at the start of the process are degraded in an uncontrolled manner during the process, which is why they have to be added in an over-concentrated form. With inline dispersion using vacuum expansion, powder can be added to liquids at both high and low viscosities - low viscosities significantly accelerate the process here. The thickening agent is only added at the end. Wetting agents, which are used in the dissolver process to reduce the surface tension, can be completely dispensed with during inline dispersion under vacuum. With deaerators and defoamers, two further additives that have to be used in a conventional dissolver process can also be reduced. In a closed, clean process with a powder feed below the liquid level, the bacterial load in the product can also be drastically reduced, which reduces the use of biocides. Further savings are made during cleaning due to the implementation in accordance with the rules of hygienic design.

The advantages pay off

Production times are drastically reduced with an inline disperser that is operated in a circuit on a process tank with a built-in jet mixer: resins can be dissolved in a fiftieth of the time and production times can be reduced by more than 80 % overall. Time savings of 88% are achieved in the production of yellow pigment pastes, and batch times can even be reduced by 94% for white and black pigment pastes. In addition, production costs can be reduced by 90 % and more. In the production of automotive coatings, costs are reduced to less than 8%, and for solvent-based flexographic printing inks as well as primers and fillers for furniture production to less than 5%. In addition to simple circulation processes, system efficiency can be increased by 60 to 100 % with twin-tank concepts, in which an inline disperser is operated alternately on two process tanks instead of one.

[Translate to Englisch:] Ansicht der ersten Seite des Fachartikels New Food

Magazine: LVT Food Industry
Issue: 11-12/2023 
Author: Dr. Hans-Joachim Jacob
Publication date: 11.2023

About the author

Dr. Jacob is Senior Expert Process and Applications at ystral. Dr. Jacob, who studied mechanical engineering, joined the company in 1990 as a process engineer and has since been responsible for our key accounts worldwide. His professional passion is the mixing and dispersion of powders in liquids. During his long career, he has gained experience in handling thousands of powders from a wide range of industries and is happy to share his expertise in various technical articles, online seminars and lectures.

About ystral

With our vast knowledge and many years of experience in Process- and Application Engineering we offer targeted, customer-oriented solutions across industries - from lab equipment to production machines or plants. Together with you, we develop concepts and implementations for your individual applications, which mean mmediately realisable and quantifiable added value for you.

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