Science Wednesday: Innovations in Food Preservation using my Mother’s Nut Jar

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By Daniel Liss

On Earth Day, I had the privilege of exhibiting my project—an energy efficient approach to food preservation—at EPA’s 6th Annual National Sustainable Design Expo. I was able to preserve food with a practically negligible impact on the environment.

Using my mother’s nut jar and other household equipment, I invented a device for preserving food that employs a promising, inexpensive new technique that could serve as an alternative to modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), the corporate industry standard. MAP involves displacing the air inside a container with either a single gas or mixture of gases to create an atmosphere that slows the deterioration of food.

Rather than displacing air, my device achieves the same objective with a simple chemical reaction. I apply an electrical charge to carbon fiber positioned inside a container, causing the fiber to burn. The surrounding oxygen reacts with the burning carbon to form carbon dioxide within the container.

In short, the existing air inside the container is transformed into a low-oxygen, high-carbon dioxide, atmosphere—hostile to the kinds of bacteria that are most harmful to food.

Although I was only 15 and my prototype was made from a nut jar, I had the opportunity to test my device at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which graciously provided laboratory space and funding after learning about my idea during a summer internship.

Based on my test results, I was able to confirm that my device significantly inhibits bacterial growth and also slows the enzymatic degradation of meat. Even more exciting is that it works with just a few pieces of relatively inexpensive equipment, and unlike vacuum packaging, does not crush food, or suck out volatile ingredients such as fats and oils.

My method essentially replicates the benefits of MAP, without the need for sophisticated equipment or large amounts of pressurized gasses on hand. Most importantly, a package atmosphere only needs to be changed once, reducing the need for additives.

About the Author:  Daniel Liss is a rising junior at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Since EPA’s Expo, he won a gold medal at the International Environmental Project Olympiad (INEPO), in Istanbul, Turkey. Previously, he had won a bronze medal at the International Sustainable World [Environment, Energy, Engineering] Project Olympiad (I-SWEEEP) in Houston, Texas.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.