Fingers on the pulse

The world’s leading provider of Pulsed Electric Field (PEF) systems to the food and beverage sector, Elea’s systems are transforming the processes used by its customers all over the world

Instant, targeted, flexible and energy-efficient, pulsed electric field (PEF) processing is a non-thermal food processing technique that uses short, high voltage pulses to puncture the cell membrane of a plant or animal tissues or bacteria, leading to cell disintegration and microbial inactivation. When it comes to food and drink applications, PEF has been proven to improve the extraction rates of juices, sugars, colouring agents and other active substances, and also to significantly extend shelf life.

“The idea of utilising PEF technology to the benefit of the food and drink industry was, in fact, first proposed in the 1960s, however the technology required at the time was simply not ready for the market,” explains Stefan Toepfl, Chief Executive Office of Elea. “Things really began to take shape after the year 2000, and from around 2006 we began to work at the German Institute of Food Technologies in Quakenbrück, which led to the development of the first industry ready systems in 2007.”

Five years later, in 2012, the company known today as Elea was formed, and in the time since it has been the focal point for creating systems and applications for the use of PEF technology, making particularly strong headway in the potato market and the juice industry. “In the case of potatoes, PEF opens up the cells, releasing liquid and helping to soften the surrounding tissue, which in turn improves the cutting of said products,” Stefan continues. “Meanwhile, with juices we are using the technology to target microbial bacteria, something that is shown to provide a longer shelf life for the product and, just as importantly, can be conducted at low temperatures, meaning that even after treatment you retain the taste of a freshly squeezed product.”

These respective industries have clearly bought into the technology itself, what with Elea now working with many of the major players within the potato industry, particularly those in the world of French fries and potato crisps, as well as leading juice processors in key markets such as the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States. To service the needs of these customers, Elea has created a number of PEF systems, each boasting the highest standard of German engineering in order to withstand continuous operation, while delivering maximum performance and energy efficiency.

Multiple benefits

Elea’s range is comprised of three system types: SmoothCut™ for solid products, CoolJuice™ for liquids, and PEFPilot™ for research and trialing. Each has varying line capacity and has been designed to be easily integrated into an existing production line with minimal disruption. With the SmoothCut™, belt systems are used to treat tubers, roots, vegetables and fruits, with different options available to process between one tonne and 55 tonnes of product per hour. The three versions of the CoolJuice™ that are available provide capacities ranging from 50 litres to 10,000 litres per hour, while the PEFPilot™ trial batch system can treat solids and liquids for scientific and pilot scale applications, offering treatment chamber sizes of up to ten litres.

With the many benefits that PEF technology has the potential to offer it is not surprising that more and more industry figures, academics, R&D leaders and innovation managers are taking notice of the work that Elea is carrying out. “For a lot of people, especially food processors, PEF is very much a game changing technology that a great number of people are fascinated in,” Stefan adds. “For these processors, the opportunities it presents in the form of cost saving, reduced water and energy usage, and higher yields are abilities that they understandably wanted to harness in the future.”

Technology showcase

This May, the company will welcome a number of the aforementioned experts, academics, industry leaders and local PhD students to its facilities to receive a first-hand experience of its technology and how it comes together at its PEF School event. “This is a regular event that we host in conjunction with the University of Applied Sciences and the German Institute of Food Technologies,” Stefan describes. “This year’s event will be particularly special as it will allow us to take a very practical approach to learning by doing things such as offering sessions with our scientists, showcasing the assembly of our systems and providing the opportunity to speak with some of our existing customers.”

It is anticipated that the PEF School event will prove just as, if not more, successful as its recent appearances at various trade shows, trade fairs and conferences. Stefan keenly points out that Elea’s appearance at the Anuga 2018 event in March 2018 alone helped to generate some 500 new leads as well as an immediate pick up in sales. “This technology is still relatively new to the field, so it is very important that we get out there and talk to people about it as much as we can,” he says. “Shows and conferences provide a great chance to showcase our technology, network with the right people and collectively explore future applications.”

Future applications

Potential applications that are already in the process of being investigated include those that will improve the preservation of dairy products, improving the drying of certain fruits such as strawberries that can then be sold as freeze-dried products throughout the year, and systems that can put to use in areas such as the sugar industry. As Stefan goes on to emphasise however, is that such moves will require an expansion in the company’s capacity and its systems’ capabilities.

“We currently have the capacity to produce around 35-40 machines per year and we are evaluating all the options available to us to extend this further,” he says. “Meanwhile, the technology itself definitely has the ability to move into larger scale production, something which we are already doing with our CoolJuice™ systems.”

Indeed, Stefan is confident that, when it comes to the potential future applications for PEF technology, Elea is only just scratching the surface of what is possible. “We already know of some of the amazing benefits that PEF is bringing to the food and drink industry, and we are excited to be exploring what the future holds for this technology in partnership with our customers.”