When you think of magnetic resonance technology, you probably picture an expensive, room-sized piece of equipment that generates data only trained experts can interpret. But what if you could harness that complex technology into a much smaller unit that’s affordable, easy to operate, and easy to read? And what if you could use it to accurately measure food content like sodium, moisture, and fat? Well, that’s exactly the kind of instrument the team at NanoNord A/S is bringing to the food industry.
To learn how it works and what it’s capable of, we spoke with Ultan O’Raghallaigh, a Management Consultant at NanoNord who handles the company’s business development and sales. NanoNord is a privately-owned Danish developer of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology to analyze oil, water, and food content in a variety of applications.
Despite what people think when they hear the word nuclear, NMR doesn’t involve radioactivity, so it’s perfectly safe. “It's exactly the same technology that MRI scanners use in hospitals,” O’Raghallaigh says. “But NMR is the spectroscopy version that gives you numbers instead of images.”
The technology is named for the nucleus of an atom. Essentially, NMR works by putting a sample into a magnetic field. “Every isotope in nature has a unique resonant frequency,” O’Raghallaigh explains. “So if you send a radio pulse up to the resonant frequency of the element you want to measure, you excite the nucleus of the atom. And the vibration of the nucleus creates an energy, which is sent back to the radio receiver.”
The first product NanoNord launched was Catguard, a device designed to measure catalytic fines in the heavy fuel oil used in ship engines. In the food industry, NanoNord’s devices measure salt, fat, and moisture content. On the agricultural side, the technology detects nitrogen and phosphorus in animal slurry and manure before it’s spread on the field. “We also measure boron in cooling water in nuclear power plants,” O’Raghallaigh adds. The possibilities for industry are almost endless.
Fast, precise, and better for the environment
Due to the high cost typically associated with NMR, it has mainly been limited to scientific research and university settings. NanoNord is focusing on reducing the cost to make the technology more accessible for food and other industries. O’Raghallaigh explains: “Rather than trying to make a system that can measure in parts per trillion or parts per billion, we're making one that measures in parts per million, which is generally what you need in industrial applications. So it's at a realistic cost, it’s easy to use, and it's very robust.”
That means it could replace other methods, specifically titration with silver nitrate. “Silver nitrate is a chemical,” O’Raghallaigh says. “You have to buy it and you have to pay to get rid of it, so it’s not environmentally-friendly. And it’s unpleasant for users because it stains the skin and clothing.”
NanoNord’s method, on the other hand, doesn’t require any chemicals or consumables, so there are no recurring costs or environmental impacts.
Near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy is another common method of measuring various types of content from samples, but NMR technology is faster and more accurate. “You just take the sample, put it into the machine, press the button, and get the result,” O’Raghallaigh says. The results are then stored within the instrument or linked with data collection software via an ethernet connection.
To the snack food industry and beyond
“There are approximately 100 elements in the periodic table that nuclear magnetic resonance can measure,” O’Raghallaigh says. “One of the easier ones to measure is sodium.” That’s why, within the food industry, NanoNord has been most active in salt measurement thus far.
Salt is of particular interest to snack food companies from a process control standpoint. “Consistency of taste is important,” O’Raghallaigh says, “and that's a function of the seasoning or flavoring applied to the snacks.” By assessing the percentage of salt in that seasoning, snack processors can ensure the taste is consistent between batches. And it only takes one minute for the NMR unit to provide sodium levels on a sample.
NanoNord is currently undergoing trials with several food companies, one of which is Tayto, the third-largest snack manufacturer in the U.K. “NMR is capable of measuring many, many different elements,” O’Raghallaigh says, “so we believe we're only scratching the surface with the snack food industry.”
After generating interest in NMR at the SNACKEX show in Barcelona, O’Raghallaigh says they’re excited about exhibiting at PROCESS EXPO for the first time this fall. “We started looking at the trade shows with snack industry participants, and we came across PROCESS EXPO. The snack food industry in North America is huge, and since we're interested in entering into the North American market, this seems like a good place to start.”
To learn more about nuclear magnetic resonance technology, you can find NanoNord at Booth #440 at PROCESS EXPO.