24 Pulsed Electric Field Technology

Dr. Aparna Kuna

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26.0 Introduction


Pulsed electric fields PEF is a non-thermal method of food preservation that uses short pulses of electricity for microbial inactivation and causes minimal detrimental effect on food quality attributes. PEF technology aims to offer consumers high-quality foods. For food quality attributes, PEF technology is considered superior to traditional thermal processing methods because it avoids or greatly reduces detrimental changes in the sensory and physical properties of foods. PEF technology involves the application of pulses of high voltage to liquid or semi-solid foods placed between two electrodes. Most PEF studies have focused on PEF treatments effects on the microbial inactivation in milk, milk products, egg products, juice and other liquid foods. The PEF treatment was shown to be very effective for inactivation of microorganisms, increasing the pressing efficiency and enhancing the juice extraction from food plants, and for intensification of the food dehydration and drying.


Pulsed electric field technology (PEF) is viewed as one of the most promising nonthermal methods for inactivating microorganisms in foods. Electric fields in the range of 5-50 kV/cm generated by the application of short high voltage pulses (µs) between two electrodes cause microbial inactivation at temperatures below those used in thermal processing. The precise mechanisms by which microorganisms are inactivated by pulsed electric fields are not well understood; however, it is generally accepted that PEF leads to the permeabilization of microbial membranes.


To qualify as an alternative method, a new technology should have significant impact on quality while at the same time maintain the cost of technology within feasibility limits. In recent years, several technologies have been investigated that have the capability of inactivating microorganisms at lower temperatures than typically used in conventional heat treatments. Application of pulsed electric fields of high intensity and duration from microseconds to milliseconds may cause temporary or permanent permeabilization of cell membranes. The effects of PEF on bio-membranes have been thoroughly studied since the use of PEF has attracted great interest in several scientific areas such as cell biology, biotechnology, medicine, or food technology.


26.1 The principles of pulsed electric field


The basic principle of the PEF technology is the application of short pulses of high electric fields with duration of microseconds, micro to milliseconds and intensity in the order of 10-80 kV/cm. The processing time is calculated by multiplying the number of pulses times with effective pulse duration. The process is based on pulsed electrical currents delivered to a product placed between a set of electrodes; the distance between electrodes is termed as the treatment gap of the PEF chamber. The applied high voltage results in an electric field that causes microbial inactivation. The electric field may be applied in the form of exponentially decaying, square wave, bipolar or oscillatory pulses and at ambient, sub-ambient, or slightly above-ambient temperature. After the treatment, the food is packaged aseptically and stored under refrigeration. PEF processing of foods have the ability to inactivate microorganisms in the food, reduce enzymatic activity, and extend shelf-life with negligible changes in the quality of the final product as compared to the original one. According to the intensity of the field strength, electroporation can be either reversible (cell membrane discharge) or irreversible (cell membrane breakdown or lysis), but this effect can be controlled depending on the application.


PEF technology is based on a pulsing power delivered to the product placed between a set of electrodes confining the treatment gap of the PEF chamber. The equipment consists of a high voltage pulse generator and a treatment chamber with a suitable fluid handling system and necessary monitoring and controlling devices (Fig. 1 .). Food product is placed in the treatment chamber, either in a static or continuous design, where two electrodes are connected together with a nonconductive material to avoid electrical flow from one to the other. Generated high voltage electrical pulses are applied to the electrodes, which then conduct the high intensity electrical pulse to the product placed between the two electrodes. The food product experiences a force per unit charge, the so-called electric field, which is responsible for the irreversible cell membrane breakdown in microorganisms.This leads to dielectric breakdown of the microbial cell membranes and to interaction with the charged molecules of food. Hence, PEF technology has been suggested for the pasteurization of foods such as juices, milk, yogurt, soups, and liquid eggs.



26.2 System components


A pulsed Electric Field processing system consists of a high-voltage power source, an energy storage capacitor bank, a charging current limiting resistor, a switch to discharge energy from the capacitor across the food and a treatment chamber. An oscilloscope is used to observe the pulse waveform. The power source, a high voltage DC generator, converts voltage from an utility line (110 V) into high voltage AC, then rectifies to a high voltage DC. Energy from the power source is stored in the capacitor and is discharged through the treatment chamber to generate an electric field in the food material. The maximum voltage across the capacitor is equal to the voltage across the generator. The bank of capacitors is charged by a direct current power source obtained from amplified and rectified regular alternative current main source. An electrical switch is used to discharge energy (instantaneously in millionth of a second) stored in the capacitor storage bank across the food held in the treatment chamber. Apart from those major components, some adjunct parts are also necessary. In case of continuous systems, a pump is used to convey the food through the treatment chamber. A chamber cooling system may be used to diminish the ohmic heating effect and control food temperature during treatment. High-voltage and high-current probes are used to measure the voltage and current delivered to the chamber.Fig. 2 shows a basic PEF treatment unit


A PEF system for food processing in general consists of three basic components (Fig.3): a high voltage pulse generator, a treatment chamber and a control system for monitoring the process parameters.Generation of pulsed electric fields requires a fast discharge of electrical energy within a short period of time. This is accomplished by the pulse-forming network (PFN), an electrical circuit consisting of one or more power supplies with the ability to charge voltages (up to 60 kV), switches (ignitron, thyratron, tetrode, spark gap, semiconductors), capacitors (0.1-10 µF), resistors (2Ω-1O MΩ), and treatment chambers.


Many successful steps have been taken in the design of system components and inactivation mechanism for different species, however, there are still many points that have not been fully explained. Inactivation kinetics and the effect of PEF on spores are some of the most discussed issues in recent studies. Methods applied to thermal processing technologies by plotting logs of the numbers of survivors against log or treatment time, or number of pulses, have been used to explain inactivation kinetics neglecting the deviations from linearity for these plots.



The PEF processing system is composed of a high voltage repetitive pulser, a treatment chamber(s), a cooling system(s), voltage- and current measuring devices, a control unit, and a data acquisition system. A pulsed power supply is used to obtain high voltage from low utility level voltage, and the former is used to charge a capacitor bank and switch to discharge energy from the capacitor across the food in the treatment chamber. Treatment chambers are designed to hold the food during PEF processing and house the discharging electrodes.


26.3 Applications of pulsed electric fields technology


Application of pulsed electric fields technology has been successfully demonstrated for the pasteurization of foods such as juices, milk, yogurt, soups, and liquid eggs. Application of PEF processing is restricted to food products with no air bubbles and with low electrical conductivity. The maximum particle size in the liquid must be smaller than the gap of the treatment region in the chamber in order to ensure proper treatment. PEF is a continuous processing method, which is not suitable for solid food products that are not pump able. PEF is also applied to enhance extraction of sugars and other cellular content from plant cells, such as sugar beets. PEF also found application in reducing the solid volume (sludge) of wastewater.


PEF processing has been successful in a variety of fruit juices with low viscosity and electrical conductivity such as orange, apple, and cranberry juice. Recent studies reported more than a 3-10g reduction in orange juice and apple juice.Additionally, the color change in fruit juices (subject to prolonged storage) was reportedly less in juices treated by PEF, as in a recent study of PEF-treated orange juice stored at 4°C for 112 days; there was less browning than thermally pasteurized juice, which was attributed to conversion of ascorbic acid to furfural.


Considering the effectiveness of PEF treatment on liquid products, such as milk, fruit juices, liquid egg, and any other pumpable food products, extensive research has been done to implement the process at an industrial level. Flavor freshness, economic feasibility, improvements in functional and textural attributes and extended shelf life are some of the main points of interest besides achievement of microbiological safety of food products.


Pulsed electric fields (PEF) is one of the most promising non-thermal processing methods for inactivation of microorganisms, with the potential of being an alternative for pasteurization of liquid foods. Comparable to pasteurization, yet without the thermal component, PEF has the potential to pasteurize several foods via exposure to high voltage short pulses maintained at temperatures below 30-40°C. The basic definition of PEF technology relies on the use of high intensity pulsed electric fields (l0-80 kV/cm) for cell membrane disruption where induced electric fields perforate microbial membranes by electroporation, a biotechnology process used to promote bacterial DNA interchange. Induction of membrane potentials exceeding a threshold value often result in cell damage and death.


PEF technology has recently been used in alternative applications including drying enhancement, enzyme activity modification, preservation of solid and semisolid food products, and waste water treatment, besides pretreatment applications for improvement of metabolite extraction. The ability of PEF to increase permeabilization means it can be successfully used to enhance mass and heat transfer to assist drying of plant tissues. Application of PEF is especially promising for the citrus industry, which is concerned with the spoilage microorganisms and resultant production of off-flavor compounds such as lactic acid bacteria.The results available in literature clearly indicate that PEF can also be successfully applied to disintegrate biological tissue and to improve the release of intracellular compounds, though an industrial application has not been achieved up to now.


26.4 Factors affecting the outcome of pulsed electric fields treatments


In order to use PEF technology as a pasteurization process it is necessary to estimate its efficacy against pathogenic and spoilage food-borne microorganisms. To obtain this objective there is a need to accumulate knowledge on the critical factors affecting microbial inactivation, to describe the PEF inactivation kinetics and to understand the mechanisms involved in microbial PEF inactivation. The lethality factors contributing to the effectiveness of pulsed electric field technology can be grouped as technological, biological, and media factors. Each group of determinant factors is related to type of equipment, processing parameters, target microorganism, and type and condition of media used.


26.5 Technological factors:


A number of other factors during PEF processing can affect specific microbial inactivation as well. Some of these critical factors include the field strength, treatment time, treatment temperature, pulse shape, type of microorganism, growth stage of microorganism, and characteristics of the treatment substrate. Microbial inactivation increases with an increase in the electric field intensity, above a critical trans membrane potential. It is important that the electric field intensity should be evenly distributed in the treatment chamber to achieve an efficient treatment. Electric field intensities of smaller than 4-8 kV cm”‘ usually do not affect microbial inactivation.In general, the electric field intensity required to inactivate microorganisms in foods in the range of 12-45 kV cm”1. The fact that microbial inactivation increases with increases in the applied electric field intensity can be attributed to the high energy supplied to the cell suspension in a liquid product.


An important aspect that differentiates between PEF processing and other microbial inactivation technologies is that the PEF treatment is delivered by pulsing. The pulses commonly used in PEF treatments are usually either exponential or square wave pulses.There is some controversy with respect to the influence of the pulse width on the PEF microbial lethality. Some authors have indicated that after the same treatment time, inactivation tested in several microorganisms was independent of the pulse width.Treatment time could be defined as the effective time during which range microorganisms are subjected to the field strength. It depends on the number of pulses and the width of the pulses applied. This parameter and the electric field strength are the main factors determining the lethal effect of PEF treatments.


Studies on microbial inactivation by PEF have been conducted at frequencies ranged from 1 to 500 Hz. If the same number of pulses is applied, microbial inactivation is generally independent of the number of pulses applied per second.PEF treatment time is calculated by multiplying the pulse number by the pulse duration. An increase in any of these variables increases microbial inactivation.A good understanding of the electrical principles behind PEF technology is essential for a comprehensive analysis of the PEF system.


26.6 Biological factors:


Biological factors that include the individual characteristics of target microorganisms and their physiological and growth states are determinant factors affecting PEF application. The susceptibility of a microorganism to PEF inactivation is highly related to the intrinsic parameters of the microorganism such as size, shape, species or growth state. Generally, Gram -positive vegetative cells are more resistant to PEF than Gram -negative bacteria, while yeasts show a higher sensitivity than bacteria. Induction of electric fields into cell membranes is greater when larger cells are exposed to PEF treatment. Most of the research focuses on the inactivation of vegetative cells of bacteria, while only a few reports are available on the inactivation of spores describ ing a limited effect of PEF. Bacillus cereus spores were mostly resistant (approximately I log reduction) to a mild PEF treatment at electric field strength of 20 kV/cm and 10.4 pulses in a study conducted on apple juice.Compared to the number of studies reported for enzyme inactivation by PEF, little information is available on the mechanism of inactivation, which may be due to the lack of analysis of enzyme structural data.


26.7 Media factors:


The effects of PEF on the food system are related to the PEF system and the properties of the liquid food. The most important factors in the PEF system are the electric field intensity, number of pulses, pulse waveform, pulse width, treatment time and treatment temperature. But enzymes and proteins are generally more resistant to electric field intensity and pulses than microorganisms. This requires further investigation, especially on the effects of pH, temperature, resistivity and composition of the enzyme or protein-containing medium or food system. The physical and chemical characteristics of food products are known to strongly influence the effectiveness of microbial inactivation during PEF application, thus the challenge experienced using real food systems was due to the important role of the media’s chemical and physical characteristics. These factors most likely influence the recovery of injured microbial cells and their subsequent growth following PEF exposure, since the presence of food components, such as fats and proteins, has reportedly had a preventive effect on microorganisms against PEF treatment.


Similar to the intrinsic parameters of microorganisms, treated media has its own intrinsic factors such as conductivity, resistivity, dielectric properties, ionic strength, pH, and composition. Each of these parametersinfluences the PEF treatment either alone or in combination. PEF technology has recently been used in alternative applications including drying enhancement, enzyme activity modification, preservation of solid and semisolid food products, and waste water treatment, besides pretreatment applications for improvement of metabolite extraction. The ability of PEF to increase permeabilization means it can be successfully used to enhance mass and heat transfer to assist drying of plant tissues.


Temperature is one factor proposed that has been correlated with microbial inactivation, and although PEF application is strictly a nonthermal processing technology, the synergistic effect of temperature on foods (due to changes in the properties of cell membranes) becomes greater when foods are subjected to high intensity pulse electric fields. In general, the lethality of PEF treatments increases with an increase in processing temperature; therefore, a proper cooling device is necessary to maintain temperatures below levels that affect nutritional, sensory or functional properties of food products.


26.8 Conclusion


The objective of food preservation technologies used by the food industry is to control microorganisms once they are contaminating foods. Food preservation technologies are based on the prevention of microbial growth or on the microbial inactivation.Pulsed electric field (PEF) is a potential non-thermal food preservation technique to replace conventional thermal processing. When exposed to high electrical field pulses, cell membranes develop pores either by enlargement of existing pores or by creation of new ones. These pores may be permanent or temporary, depending on the condition of treatment. Research of pulsed electric fields technology is ongoing around the world. Most of the research conducted up until now has been in the laboratory and on a pilot plant scale level, and has shown promising results.The basis for this prediction is because of PEF’s ability to inactivate microorganisms in the food, reduce enzymatic activity, and extend shelf-life with negligible changes in the quality of the final product as compared to the original one.


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Suggested Readings

  • H.L.M. Lelieveld, S. Notermans and S.W.H. De Haan, 2007, Food Preservation by Pulsed Electric Fields – From Research to Application, Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science.
  • Javier Raso and Volker Heinz, 2006, Pulsed Electric Fields Technology for the Food Industry.
  • S.D. Holdsworth, 1997, Thermal Processing of Packaged Foods.
  • James G. Brennan, 2006, Food Processing Handbook, Wiley Publications.
  • Gustavo V. Barbosa-Canovas, Q. Howard Zhang, Pulsed Electric Fields in Food Processing: Fundamental Aspects and Applications (Google eBook), CRC Press