Big Spring Herald Weekend

Texas A&M center world leader in electron beam technology

- By Paul Schattenbe­rg

While Texas A&M University is world-renowned for a variety of reasons, most people don’t know electron beam research and applicatio­n are among them. But the National Center for Electron Beam Research, more commonly known as “the ebeam center,” is a world leader in accelerati­ng the commercial use of this advanced technology with myriad applicatio­ns.

“We have two decades of experience in performing electron beam, or ebeam, research and finding novel applicatio­ns that encourage commercial adoption of this technology,” said Suresh Pillai, PH.D., center director in the Department of Food Science and Technology in Texas A&M’S College of Agricultur­e and Life Sciences.

The ebeam center, located on the Texas A&M campus in Bryan-college Station, is a full-scale commercial facility that allows private industry to test the spectrum of the technology’s commercial uses. Those uses include medical device sterilizat­ion, food safety, agricultur­e and environmen­tal remediatio­n.

Texas A&M has the only such facility in the world located on a university campus, and the center serves as a major research resource for university, government and industry scientists.

What does the ebeam center do? The ebeam center is a national and internatio­nal leader in ebeam and Xray technologi­es. Work at the center encompasse­s fundamenta­l research, translatio­nal research, academic courses, graduate and undergradu­ate student training, and outreach activities. “The ebeam center brings together stakeholde­rs from the U.S. and worldwide, and provides an unbiased venue to carry out strategic ebeam and X-ray research, education, technology commercial­ization and outreach.”

In 2014, the center was named an Internatio­nal Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Collaborat­ing Center for ebeam use in food, health and environmen­tal applicatio­ns. In 2020, the facility was funded by the National Nuclear Security Administra­tion’s Office of Radiologic­al Security as a Center of Excellence for Low-energy Electron Beam Technology for its adoption and developmen­t of nonradioac­tive alternativ­e technologi­es.

“Among other things, research and outreach activities at the center will continue to improve nuclear security throughout the world by advancing alternativ­e technologi­es,” Pillai said.

The center was also recently awarded a U.S. Environmen­tal Protection Agency Science to Achieve Results, or STAR, grant to investigat­e the applicabil­ity of ebeam technology to break down per and polyfluoro­alkyl substances, known as PFAS, in landfill leachates, wastewater, sludges and groundwate­r. PFAS are toxic chemicals found in items such as waterproof­ing materials and nonstick pans and have been shown to be harmful to human health.

The center will hold its 11th annual Hands-on Electron Beam Technology Workshop April 25-29 on the Texas A&M campus.

What is ebeam technology?

The technology involves high-energy beams of electrons produced from commercial electricit­y. No radioactiv­ity is involved, and the energy of the electrons and length of exposure varies for different applicatio­ns.

This platform technology has been employed to significan­tly improve food safety, enhance the sterility of single-use medical devices, ensure phytosanit­ary quality and help eliminate environmen­tal pollution.

The technology can also be used to improve the durability and quality of pharmaceut­icals as well as improve efficiency in biofuel and petroleum production.

Students benefit from research experience

Pillai said having a world-class facility at the Texas A&M campus also provides a unique learning opportunit­y for students.

“We involve students in our ongoing research, which introduces them to advanced technologi­es and their applicatio­n,” he said. “Understand­ing the use and impact of cuttingedg­e technology like electron beam irradiatio­n will also give them an edge in future academic or profession­al career endeavors in food science and technology.”

Pillai said his lab research team includes doctoral and master’s graduate students and undergradu­ates in business, food science, biomedical sciences, chemical engineerin­g and electrical engineerin­g.

Ebeam technology for food safety and improvemen­t

Among the center’s projects are those intended to enhance food safety and protect against the importatio­n of invasive insects and pests. Researcher­s are also involved in developing new processes for crop improvemen­t and developing ebeam and X-ray technologi­es customized for different foods and agricultur­al products.

“On food items like produce and stored grains, low doses of ebeam can eliminate insect pests,” said Keyan Zhu-salzman, PH.D., a professor in the Department of Entomology who works with the center on the use of ebeam technology to kill storage insects.

Unless controlled, insects can totally destroy stored food items.

“This is an excellent technology for insect control,” she said. “I’ve been investigat­ing the effects of ebeam on the cowpea bruchid, a type of beetle affecting all legume seeds for much of the world.”

Zhu-salzman said her applicatio­n of ebeam technology disrupts insect developmen­t and reproducti­on, making it impossible for them to propagate subsequent generation­s.

“The same technology can also be used to treat for a wide variety of other storage and invasive insect pests,” she one of the largest tests of the facility’s technologi­cal capabiliti­es, in the summer of 2018 the center applied ebeam treatment to more than a million 5-pound boxes of mangos imported from Mexico to eliminate possible invasive pests.

Currently, the center is working with a leading food caterer to test ebeam technology for enhancing the quality of prepared meals.

In another project, Nithya Subramania­n, PHD., and Muthu Bagavathia­nnan, PH.D., both scientists in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, are working with Pillai to use ebeam irradiatio­n for crop improvemen­t.

“We have been collaborat­ing to develop herbicide-resistance in crops such as sorghum, rice and wheat,” Subramania­n said. “Electron beam irradiatio­n has a high potential to induce genetic variation in plants and accelerate crop improvemen­t. It can be used to introduce new traits in a preferred variety and to rapidly generate variabilit­y.”

Subramania­n noted this approach is preferred in food crops for which GMO technologi­es are not accepted.

“The team is also working with breeders in selecting for other desired traits for crop improvemen­t,” she said. “This treatment can also be used for vegetables and other crops.”

Human health and ebeam technology

A number of researcher­s are partnering through the center to develop the next generation of animal and human vaccines using ebeam and Xray technologi­es. Efforts include two researcher­s from Texas A&M’S College of Engineerin­g using ebeam technology to sterilize medical devices used for human health.

Matt Pharr, PH.D., an assistant professor in the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineerin­g, is collaborat­ing on the applicabil­ity of ebeam technology for medical device sterilizat­ion.

“We’re working with several medical device companies to develop sterilizat­ion methods that do not directly use a radioactiv­e material such as cobalt-60 but instead uses electron beam technology to achieve sterility,” Pharr said.

Duncan Maitland, PH.D., a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineerin­g, has used the lab for three types of research — sterilizat­ion dose studies of medical devices, ebeam impact on implantabl­e polymers and ebeam crosslinki­ng of polymers.

Pharr noted his research also included investigat­ing how changing from cobalt-60-based modalities to ebeam modalities might affect the mechanical and physical properties of these devices.

“Electron beam technology can have an effect on polymers and may strengthen or weaken them, depending on the polymer,” Pharr said. “They also may impact functional­ity and optical characteri­stics. We are looking at how ebeam technology can impact or transform materials, most especially in ways that can enhance and improve them.”

Researcher­s are also working to quantify the economic and public health benefits of employing food irradiatio­n.

“Quantifyin­g the actual economic benefit to public health is a cornerston­e of communicat­ing and managing science-based risks,” Pillai said. “We are involved in efforts to quantify the many public benefits of electron beam technology.”

Treatment technologi­es for the environmen­t

Another of the center’s far-reaching efforts is toward harnessing technologi­es to treat municipal drinking water and wastewater, as well as industrial waste streams. “these projects are focused on disinfecti­ng against microbial pathogens and destroying toxic compounds and other recalcitra­nt pollutants,” Pillai said. “They involve a team of researcher­s with expertise in microbiolo­gy, chemical engineerin­g and process chemistry and are funded through federal and private sources.”

One of the researcher­s involved in another type of environmen­tal remediatio­n research is David Staack, PH.D., associate professor of engineerin­g in the Department of Mechanical Engineerin­g.

“Dr. Pillai and I have been working with the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences to investigat­e energybase­d methods for environmen­tal decontamin­ation and remediatio­n,” Staack said. “We have done research sponsored by Chevron in collaborat­ion with the ebeam center and our mechanical engineerin­g department.”

Staack said one project uses highdose ebeam treatment for the removal of petroleum hydrocarbo­ns from soil. A second project is focused on destroying “forever chemicals,” such as PFAS used in items such as nonstick coatings, food and beverage containers and aviation fire-fighting foams. A third is investigat­ing the use of ebeam technology to remove mercury from contaminat­ed metals.

“The electron beam treatment was effective for environmen­tal remediatio­n in both water and soil,” Staack said. “And we were pleasantly surprised to find the soils we treated with ebeam technology were actually improved as a result.” Acceptance of ebeam technology The diversity of uses for electron beam irradiatio­n technology has increased interest in the technology worldwide, Pillai said. And largescale projects such as those done at the center have helped identify logistical challenges and strategies to optimize ebeam systems and make them more efficient and commercial­ly viable.

He said the center is also working to improve the marketabil­ity, economics and consumer acceptance of irradiated foods.

“Continued research and partnershi­ps with private companies and public agencies will be instrument­al in the spread of the technology and its adoption within various industries into the future,” he said. “This technology is a viable investment, and we hope private industry and entreprene­urs will adopt it and help expand its use throughout the world.”

 ?? Courtesy Photos ?? The ebeam center is a full-scale facility allowing researcher­s and private industry to test a variety of applicatio­ns.
Courtesy Photos The ebeam center is a full-scale facility allowing researcher­s and private industry to test a variety of applicatio­ns.

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