Pilot plant helps build bridges between industry and Virginia Tech

By Zeke Barlow

Things are really cooking in the Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1 pilot plant these days.

In one corner of the 7,100-square-foot room, DuPont Teijin Films is working with researchers from the Department of Food Science and Technology on innovative ways to package and process foods ranging from chicken and bread to broccoli and beans.

Meanwhile, Tyson Foods and Virginia Tech professors have been developing ways to create a new Ball Park product line that uses the best food safety techniques available.

At the same time, Kollmorgen, which manufactures components used in food processing equipment, has been bringing some of world’s biggest food and beverage companies to the pilot plant to learn about advancements in hygienic design and sanitation as they work with the donated machines that fill the room.

There is also a fully operational brewhouse so beer companies in the ever-growing craft beer industry can come and perfect their brewing techniques.

Student and professor look at food packaging.

Pilot Plant Manager Brian Wiersema, right, examines food packaging with a student.

These are just a few of the many relationships the Department of Food Science and Technology has developed in the 18 months since the building was completed. Each one is having a unique benefit to the companies as well as to the university, its researchers, and students.

“What we are doing is building bridges,” said Joe Marcy, head of the department. “Once you build it, you can expand it, make it wider, and make it stronger. The advantages to everyone involved continue to expand.”

For a company, having the space to test the best ways to prepare or package new product lines without shutting down its own manufacturing lines is invaluable.
“Virginia Tech was critical to us assuring the safety of our new product,” said Bob Reinhard (food science and technology, ’90, ’95), vice president of food safety and quality at Tyson Foods, which tested the processing of a new line of products at the pilot plant before launching a manufacturing line in Martinsville, Virginia.

The companies working in the pilot plant often donate the equipment they are testing, allowing researchers to work on the most state-of-the-art food processing machines around. Research that is being sponsored by the companies help make advances in food science fields such as food sensory evaluation and microbiology.

Students have the opportunity to work alongside professionals from some of the biggest names in the food industry, which not only gives them invaluable experience, but also provides them with an entrée into the job market and a network of contacts. Panels of industry leaders often serve as judges for students’ poster sessions, and industry partners are also sponsoring a number of scholarships.

“I call the pilot plant my engagement space,” Marcy said. “This great room brings all our missions together — research, outreach, and academics — in a way that is beneficial to everyone.”

Equipment in a food testing laboratory.

Pilot Plant in the Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1.