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Disruptors

Using microwaves, B.C. firm makes it easier to preserve food, vaccines Add to ...

For John McNichol and Tim Durance, there’s nothing dry about dehydration. The pair of Vancouver co-CEOs are building an international business that could upend the way everything from berries to vaccines are preserved.

Their company, EnWave  – not to be confused with the Toronto energy company of the same name – uses microwaves to draw the water out of food products without damaging them, promising dramatic time and cost savings over traditional freeze-drying. The global dehydration business is worth $2-billion a year, they say, and their products are being tested by giants like Nestlé, Kellogg and Ocean Spray.

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One way to keep organics from spoiling is to take the water out of them. But how to remove it? Boiling it out is inadvisable: “You want to avoid heat, because heat is destructive for proteins and nutrients, which are destroyed by the high temperature,” says Dr. Durance, a professor of food science at the University of British Columbia.

There’s a workaround, though: As the pressure of the atmosphere gets lower, water boils at a lower temperature – just as it’s easier to boil a kettle on top of a mountain. If you reduce the pressure enough – say, to a near-vacuum – you can even turn frozen water straight to gas, by sublimation, just by applying a bit of heat. The water comes out, and the material never gets too hot. Presto, you’re freeze-drying.

The catch is that it’s both slow and energy-consuming. Freeze-dryers are large contraptions that can take anywhere from days to the better part of a week to do their work. The process was pioneered in the Second World War as a way of getting serums to the battlefield without needing to refrigerate them, and its fundamentals haven’t changed much since.

Enter EnWave. The company specializes in Vacuum-Microwave, or VM, drying. The firm originated in the work of Dr. Durance, who used microwaves to do the heating, rather than conventional radiators. Like a kitchen microwave, the technique can apply heat much faster and energy-efficiently to foods, promising dehydration in a fraction of the time.

Faster dehydration, in turn, means that more products can be processed, which means lower labour costs; the microwaves are typically less energy-intensive than traditional heat sources. Mr. McNicol says their products can measure dehydration times in minutes rather than hours.

“The technology has a significant advantage in terms of cost and products,” says Mr. McNicol. “It’s very close to disrupting the global market.”

Mr. McNicol became a partner in 2007, bringing a background as an entrepreneur involved with other drying products, and took on the business-development end of the operation. Since then, he says the firm has raised over $33-million in funding, forged relationships with some of the world’s biggest food processors, and bought a controlling stake in Hans Binder, a German manufacturer that pursued similar technologies, giving EnWave access to their equipment-building expertise. Now, the company is moving from development to deployment.

EnWave’s approach isn’t just to sell machines, but to license them for specific uses. Big food companies are currently evaluating EnWave machines in an R&D capacity, while the company is working with pharmaceutical giant Merck on the medical side; vaccines that need to be shipped far and wide – and fast – are prime candidates for speedy dehydradation.

Mr. McNicol says that as the company expects to be taking production orders for several large machines in the next six to eight months, and expects to be “firing on all cylinders” within two years.

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