Central Michigan University professor recognized for research on adapting polymeric materials in plastic food packaging to allow milk to be stored at room temperature

MOUNT PLEASANT, Michigan , April 16, 2013 (press release) – Bob Howell, professor of chemistry and polymer science at Central Michigan University, has received international recognition from the society of thermal analysis researchers for his research on adapting the polymeric materials in plastic food packaging to allow milk to be stored at room temperature.

Howell is the recipient of the 2012 North American Thermal Analysis Society award for his outstanding achievement in thermal analysis research. Howell’s research to address the issue of foul taste in pastries based on their packaging and brown streaking in milk jugs created to reduce the cost of milk production, was considered particularly noteworthy by the society.

The annual award is the highest honor bestowed by the society. It is given to researchers whose work has had a significant impact internationally. Howell’s research in the field of thermal analysis, which included addressing the issue of transporting milk without requiring refrigeration, qualified him for the achievement.

“There are not many award winners from a school this size,” Howell said. “The fact that we’ve been able to do significant research here on an international scale is an accomplishment.”

Howell’s interest in polymeric materials, found in food packaging items, is the basis of his thermal analysis research. In his research, which began as a request from The Dow Chemical Co., Howell used thermal analysis to solve the problem of material decomposition.

One of the challenges presented in his research, which began in 1985, focused on adapting the polymeric materials in food packaging items like ketchup bottles and peanut butter jars to store milk. The goal of his research was to find a method of storing milk in plastic jugs that do not require refrigeration. Refrigerating milk in transit is one of the major production costs. Degradation in the barrier level of the packaging, which helps to keep oxygen out and flavor locked inside, caused brown streaking in the jug.

Howell says his research looked to solve the issue of the brown streaking.

“The key is understanding the stability of the barrier layer in these products,” Howell said. “We wanted to understand how the degradation occurs and how to stabilize the polymer.”

Another key element of Howell’s research dealt with the degradation of polystyrene, used in the transparent food packaging material for pastries and cookies. The degradation of the material created an odor, which resulted in an unusual taste in the product. Howell says his research helped uncover the origin of the odor and solve a problem that had existed for approximately 50 years.

“CMU is unique in that we’re a mid-level school with a great thermal analysis laboratory that allows us to do very significant work,” Howell said. “Many people have mentioned it’s remarkable that we’re able to do work of this magnitude here and answer real problems directly applicable in the industry.”

Howell says that even though his research has a significant impact on society as a whole, his students also benefit greatly from the work done in his laboratory.

“Our society could not enjoy life the way we do without polymer materials,” Howell said. “Yet, our students benefit from this research as well. We have more than 50 students out in the world doing great things with the experience they received from the research done at CMU.

“We’ve done a lot of work and most of it has been of a fundamental nature. We’re getting better able to do significant work all the time.”

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