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Middle School Robotics Team Designs Electrolyzed Water Vender To Improve Food Safety

Posted On: 2/7/2012

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vending machine, Folsom Blue Lighting

SACRAMENTO, CA -- A team of eight middle school students here has designed an electrolyzed water vending machine that they're hoping will take top place at the FIRST Lego League Robotics Sacramento District Championship on Feb. 11. The team advanced to the regional competition after winning the local qualifying tournament in Chico, CA.

The four boys and four girls (the "Folsom BrainStormers") are from four different schools. Their novel vending application produces electrolyzed water, which is proven to reduce food contamination and can also be used as a nontoxic cleaning agent. The team's coach, Charles Smothers, has been coaching robotics teams for last four years.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a worldwide organization that encourages kids, mentors, coaches and parents to get passionate about science and engineering. It does this by challenging teams of kids to build and program robots. FIRST's programs are designed for different age groups; one is the FIRST Lego League, or FLL.

FLL teams are required not only to build robots, but also to research a real-world problem chosen as the annual theme. This year's is "Food Factor," and the challenge is to identify a safety issue in the global food supply, research it and propose a solution. The participants are expected to partner with researchers and other experts.

In previous years, themes have included climate change, energy, transportation and medical engineering. Teams have been granted patents, had legislation enacted, developed products, and created foundations to raise money and awareness.

The Folsom BrainStormers researched many foods including milk, nuts, grains salsa, and ketchup. They spoke with experts in the field, including an infectious disease specialist with Kaiser Permanente and an agricultural researcher from the University of California (Davis).

Folsom Chico

The team members selected salsa, since their research found that it is the number one condiment in the U.S. -- and that 1 in 25 food-borne illnesses directly involves fresh salsa or guacamole. Since these foods are not cooked, there are no simple solutions to removing pathogens from them -- and the contestants were restricted to non-thermal methods of combating contamination.

Photo | VENDING MACHINE DESIGN TEAM: In front row, from left, are Micah, Vijay, Camden and Puja; in middle, from left, are Pranav, Nikhil, Suma, Srilekha and Kruti; in back row, from left, are Louis Biggers, Sri Kodali, Charles Smothers and Caleb Biggers, the team's coaches and mentors.

One seventh-grade team member, Pranav, was surprised by the number of research articles he found on Google Scholar about "electrolyzed water." He and his teammates were intrigued to learn that a nontoxic cleaning solution and a disinfectant could be created simply by adding salt to water and passing an electric current through the solution.

The "reactor" in which this is done is a tank fitted with an anode and a cathode, separated by a membrane. Salt water introduced into this tank and electrolyzed by the flow of electric current between the electrodes breaks down into a base (alkaline) solution at the cathode and an oxidizing (acid) solution at the anode. Both products, after some controlled mixing, are effective cleaning agents; the acidic solution kills pathogens that cause foodborne illness, and the alkaline solution is a good cleanser and degreaser. Both products break down quickly, so they are environmentally friendly. Since they cannot be stored for long periods of time, a system that can produce them on demand is necessary if they are to find widespread use.

The team also studied other non-thermal technologies such as "ozonation," irradiation, ultrasonic cleaning and high-pressure processing, but they concluded that these methods are too expensive, impractical for small-scale use or insufficiently developed to permit immediate application.

They also found that, although electrolyzed water is widely used in Japan to reduce sushi contamination and for other disinfecting purposes, it is not a popular technology in the U.S. Their next step was to consult Professor Yen-Con Hung, a well-known electrolyzed water researcher at the University of Georgia.

Professor Hung explained that, until recently, most research was done on very acidic electrolyzed water (pH below 3), but it was found to be unstable and corrosive, and the electrolyzing process tends to produce excessive chlorine. Professor Hung's recent studies have found slightly acidic water (pH between 5 and 6) is equally effective in killing pathogens, but has a better shelf-life and none of the negative effects of strongly acidic water.

The team also consulted EAU Technologies and Aquaox -- both manufacturers and distributors of equipment that electrolyzes water -- and learned that their systems are expensive because of the complexity of the electrolytic cell. The BrainStormers initially explored the feasibility of designing a small, home-based unit for under $500, but were advised by Aquaox that this would not be possible at present; even small systems cost between $5,000 and $6,000.

This suggested that the solution would be a self-service commercial device. The team noticed the pure-water vending machines in local grocery stores, which already incorporate sophisticated water treatment technology. They decided to design a disinfecting-water vending machine by adding an electrolyzed water generator to a vender of this kind, thus making it multi-purpose. Customers could choose among pure drinking water, which the machines already deliver, plus an alkaline water effective as a cleanser and an oxidizing water, which can be used to sanitize raw foods.

The BrainStormers also realized that the slightly acidic oxidizing water from the vending machines could be used in a store's misting system, and to disinfect the checkout counters. The alkaline water could be used for general-purpose cleaning. These bonus applications would enable the stores to recover the cost of the vending machine more rapidly.

Camden, a sixth-grader on the team, used Lego Digital Designer software to create a virtual vending machine model that the team entered in the qualifying tournament held in Chico, CA. It won the qualifying championship, and this success encouraged the youngsters to design an actual vending machine for the next tournament.

Sri Kodali, project coach of the team, worked to put the team in contact with Russell Genet of Blue Bottle Vending (Phoenix, AZ), a vending and design industry veteran.

Read more about Blue Bottle Vending's machine.

Genet and his design team volunteered to help the BrainStormers design the new electrolyzed water vending machine. The team named the vending machine EFECTS (Eco-Friendly Economic Cleaning and disinfecTing System).

The estimated cost for the vending machine is $15,000, with the sales prices of the slightly acidic (oxidizing) and alkaline (reducing) solutions estimated at 50¢ and $1 per gallon, respectively. Consumers can use the mildly acidic water to disinfect produce, kitchen utensils, countertops and refrigerators, and the alkaline water to remove dirt and pesticide residue from produce, and as a household cleaner.

"This group of children, and others like them, will drive the future of vending by bringing new, innovative, real-world solutions that will expand our industry," said Blue Bottle Vending's Genet. "I was extremely impressed with their ability to clearly identify and define not only a new market in our industry, but a comprehensive solution as well. It is crucial to bring new ideas and markets to the industry, and that is exactly what this group of kids is doing today"

The BrainStormers have submitted their ambitious vending solution for the FLL Global Innovation Award and are hopeful that they will get enough of the popular votes needed to win the grand prize trip to present their solution at the International Association of Food Protection Annual Conference in Rhode Island, July 22-25.

Vote for the BrainStormers here.

The BrainStormers' vending aspirations are far from over. They plan to demonstrate their solution to various grocery store chains in northern California in the coming months.