It works by disrupting DNA.
Is that the coolest product pitch you've heard in ages or what?
Advanced Electron Beams is bringing a sterilization technology from the pharmaceutical world to the food market that effectively wipes out microbes with an electron gun. The device douses the inside and outside of packages with electrons. This prevents any microbes present from reproducing. The microbes die without offspring, get swept out the container with an air rinse and then milk, soup or pudding is added to the container.
"While it is called a beam, it is really a shower of electrons," said Josh Epstein, director of marketing, likening it to a low-level gamma radiation. (Aren't you glad the dentist gives you a lead apron now?) Old CRT TVs contain electron guns too.
If AEB is correct, it could reduce the energy and resources required to deliver dairy products. Containers typically get sterilized now with heat or chemicals. Heat, though, requires energy. "There is a lot of wastewater and energy involved," Epstein said. "And consumers don't like chemicals." Electron sterilization pretty much occurs at room temperature, which also expands the packaging options. (Pictured above is an electron emitter.)
Electron sterilization additionally leads to shelf-stable dairy products, which means energy-consuming cold distribution isn't required. Potentially, it could curb product spoilage and waste as well. General Electric invested in the company and is tinkering with the technology in its labs. AEB raised $14.2 million in a C round this past August.
Welcome to the new world of food processing. A growing list of companies have proposed green solutions for the food and drink industry in the past five years that seek to reduce energy and chemical consumption while upping the kill ratio. With every E. coli outbreak, sales climb, some CEOs have said.
Marrone Organic Innovations and AgraQuest, both founded by Pam Marrone, identify naturally occurring microbes that kill fungi and other harmful pests but aren't dangerous to humans, obviating the need for chemical fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Purfresh exploits the ability of ozone to crack cell walls to sterilize bottled water, plastic containers and fruit. Atlantium Technologies has a sterilization system that kills microbes with ultraviolet light and waveguide technologies from the telecommunications market.
AEB announced the product line earlier this year, but will have the first customer installations running soon. Electron beams have been employed to sterilized pre-filled syringes for years. AEB is the first to bring it to the food and beverage market. AEB's electron emitter, marketed under the Blu brand, also snaps into existing equipment, reducing capital costs. The most recent device has been tailored to specifically sterilize bottles efficiently.
Epstein emphasized that AEB is not directly sterilizing food, just the packages. Currently it is working mainly on milk-based products like shelf-stable cream soups, not canned meats or things like bottled water or soda.
Besides, "Soda kills everything eventually," he joked.