Developing new technology keeps the industry moving forward, but bringing new manufacturing solutions to market can be a difficult task. Food Manufacturing spoke with Richard Magoon, Vice President of MCD Technologies, Inc. and inventor of Refractance Window® heat technology, about the process of developing innovative manufacturing solutions.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the product?
A: After spending many years in the aviation and marine autopilot industries, I traveled to Central America. The night before I left home, I helped my father put plums in a home air dryer. While in San Salvador, I saw lots of fruits and vegetables, but unfortunately in the hot, humid climate the food rotted before it could be consumed or transported and was thrown away.
Later that day, I went to an ocean beach to swim and began to think of a way to preserve these foods. After exploring several different ideas, I concluded that the most cost effective way to preserve food was to dry it.
While swimming underwater, I looked up to see that the water’s surface acted like a mirror, only allowing me to see something floating on it but almost nothing else. I knew water was the best heat transfer medium in nature and wondered if perhaps water could be used to provide the energy needed to dry products. If so, it might do so more efficiently and without damaging the delicate and valuable nutrients in the food.
Once I had a rough design worked out I built my dryer. My wife, Karin, and I moved to my childhood home in Washington state and began designing and building the dryer, now called the Refractance Window® dryer. We formed our company, MCD Technologies, Inc., and began selling dryers, which are currently being used in nine countries.
Q: What obstacles did you face along the way?
A: Lack of money, lack of knowledge about the food industry, lack of knowledge about food science, lack of knowledge about marketing, sales, accounting, etc. Oh, and lack of money! One of the greatest challenges we’ve had has been getting the word out to the industry in general concerning the benefits of our drying technology and, in particular, to those who are looking for improved drying methods.
Q: How does Refractance Window® heat technology work?
A: Heat is transmitted by three methods: conduction, convection and radiation. Because all three heat transfer methods function within water, this makes water one of the most effective heat transfer media in nature. Yet, unlike most other media, water transmits very little infrared energy to its surroundings.
Water returns its energy to its surroundings by a combination of conduction and evaporation. Therefore, once a surface of water is covered by a transparent medium, such as plastic, only conduction can take place since the plastic prevents evaporation and associated heat loss. However, if a moisture-laden product (in this case, the product to be dried) is put in direct contact with the plastic surface, there is a “window” to the passage of infrared energy that is created at the point of contact of the liquid product with the plastic, where it bears on the water. At that time, all three forms of heat transmission methods are operating. This permits exceedingly effective heat transfer to take place.
As the product dries, the infrared “window” closes, as less and less moisture remains in contact with the plastic. The only heat transfer taking place at that time is by means of conduction. Since plastic is a very poor conductor, little heat is lost in this manner.
The patented technology used in our dryers and evaporators creates a “window” or passage to infrared energy at the speed of light into the product to be dried. A key feature of the MCD Refractance Window® Dryer lies in the proprietary use of an infrared-transparent plastic film. The product to be dried is placed on the film which “floats” on top of a heated (210° F / 99° C or less) body of water. Due to evaporative cooling, product reaches only 160° F / 71° C on the dryer and 140° F / 60° C on the evaporator.
Our dryers harness infrared energy by creating a “window” to the passage of this energy to dry the product. This drying takes place in the most efficient manner. The heat loss in the circulating water beneath the plastic film from evaporation is minimal (dryer) or none (evaporator), since the body of water is essentially covered or entirely encapsulated by the plastic film. The heat transfer that takes place is in locations where the product to be dried is resting on the film, so that heat transfer is directly into the product to be dried and exists almost nowhere else on the plastic film.
Q: How do innovative ideas like this improve the industry as a whole?
A: Products produced on Refractance Window® drying systems are raising the standard for dried products around the world. And, by raising the bar in one area, we’re all reminded that there’s always room for improvements and inventions in all areas.
When we were asking the Washington Technology Center for our first grant, Mr. Richard Parks, who was then the third generation owner and president of National Dryer Corporation, was kind enough to write a letter stating that Refractance Window® drying was the first new drying technology developed in 50 years. We found his spirit of generosity and openness to a new development in his chosen field inspiring and surprisingly common in the industry.
Q: Do you have advice for those who are looking into developing a new processing technology?
A: Go for it! Be prepared to spend a long time shouting your product’s benefits to the treetops and have only the birds listen. Until you can build credibility in one way or another, what you say about the benefits of your new product or way of doing something is just talk. So figure out a way early in the process of taking your big idea to market to prove your product or project and be prepared to keep on doing that until you find success. And then keep on doing it.
Interview by Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor