I can't begin to tell you how hard it has been refraining from publishing an Update item on the use of ultraviolet (UV) lasers to cut cheddar cheese by engineers at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. I passed on this application when it was called to our attention last October at ICALEO, even though the obvious headline (referenced to a bodily function) just begged to go with such a news item. With all due respect for the work of Professor Xiaochun Chun and his graduate student Hongseok Choi, I thought that the use of pulsed UV lasers in a heavy duty application such as production cutting of relatively thick (2.5mm) slices of cheese was, as the Brits are wont to say, just not on.
Others, much less technical in their assessment, have leaped all over a press release put out by the University and now the Internet is full of references to this application, even one that I have seen with that obvious headline.
Over the years I have been exposed to or have heard about countless potential laser applications, many involving food processing, that just didn't make sense for technical laser/material interaction reasons. The UV laser cheese application brought many of these to mind again, not facetiously, but with the thought that new laser technology, robot motion advances, and, above all, powerful computing functions might be the solution to previously failed laser attempts.
Perhaps that Parisian chef who wanted to laser remove the rough knife-cut ends from asparagus should call again, now that high-speed vision systems and low-cost robotic motion could handle the product diameter problems and stalk orientation problems.
Or maybe the Gulf of Mexico shrimp grower who wanted to neuter shrimp by laser heating a gland positioned behind the eye, so that the shrimp put energy into growth rather than sex, should ship another bucket as he did before a July 4th weekend, much to the consternation of the local post office workers.
Then there is the advanced manufacturing engineer who wanted wafer-like candy bars to be laser separated as they exited the chocolate enrobing process on a production line. To this day I can't eat this candy bar without recalling the odor of burning sugar.
And who can forget the North Shore shellfish company that was convinced that the heat generated by a laser beam could open live oysters quicker and automatically, if a way to properly position the shell's muscle to the beam as the product moved down a conveyor line could be found, and oh yeah, if a laser not sensitive to water vapor was available.
A favorite was the close-to-successful effort to laser mark cooked frozen hamburgers to produce the effect of a hot outdoor grill. I say close because I believe that this process might have been used with a certain brand of dry dog food.
It seems chickens are rather combative when closely penned. A neighbor, one of the largest chicken hatchery operators in the north east thought a CO2 laser would be a perfect bloodless and painless way to debeak the aggressive poultry. Actually it turns out this is true. However, how do you get the beam to the beak without manually holding the bird? You don't.
Looking back I can see where advances in laser processing technology might be able to resolve some of these issues and that maybe the long-sought-after killer application that will leverage laser processing to new heights is just waiting for a new solution. So as a service, e-mail me your failed processing application and I'll pass it on to potential problem solvers. If it involves food it may, at least, be amusing.
David A. Belforte