The Process Engineering Research and Development Center within the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) at Texas A&M University is the oldest university associated food industrial application center in the United States. The center has its roots in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, where in 1929 it began oilseed process equipment training and in collaboration with the Texas Cottonseed Crusher’s Association and the Oil Mill Superintendents Association and area-wide processing stakeholders. The research and development (R&D) program was later initiated as the Cottonseed Product Laboratory in 1939 to assist Texas farmers by developing new uses for local crops.
Research interests widened to include other oilseeds, which led the center name to change to the Oilseed Product Laboratory in 1951. While the name of the center changed again in 1971 to the Food Protein Research & Development Center to speak to the emphasis on relevant research of the time, the R&D and training needs continued to address mechanical and chemical engineering questions from industry stakeholders who did not have the in-house capability to solve such needs from a practical, cost-effective and unbiased perspective. As the industry grew, so did the need for research and training for companies that were designed only for manufacturing. The growing resources of the center and research demands of industry eventually led to another name change in 2016 to the Process Engineering Research & Development Center (PERDC).
Several major changes have occurred during the past several decades besides the name. The center’s staff now works in diverse areas, including oilseed preparation and solvent extraction, fats and oils refining and processing, membrane separation, and extrusion of food and feeds. The center offers professional research to private industry, trade associations, agricultural producers, engineering firms and equipment manufacturers on a global basis.
Equipment and process testing required pilot-scale machinery and facilities. The PERDC sought the infrastructure and equipment necessary to provide complete and comprehensive oilseed milling capabilities. However, the strength of the PERDC wasn’t fully realized until it became integrated with former industry professionals, rather than being solely staffed by academic engineers and scientists. The center’s reputation grew through the years as it offered training worldwide to new plant engineers and research to industry in a setting where there was significant capability to efficiently obtain support in an unbiased, confidential and economical manner.
Stakeholders who work with the PERDC know that their research goals will be accomplished, even if time and funding are short of what had been planned. This commitment to people and helping them succeed is what drives return business that yields profits to cover losses. The center’s reputation became appealing to governmental entities, trade groups, research associations and other universities that could benefit from the center’s unique resources.
Today, the PERDC is divided into programs to functionally coincide with the major processes found in the manufacture of foods/feeds and biofuels. For example, the Extraction and Protein Technologies Program was born out of the preparation, crushing and extraction of oilseed to yield meal and oil. The Fats and Oils Program has its origins in the refining of crude vegetable oil into edible oils. The Extrusion Program exploits the single most important piece of equipment necessary to produce animal feed, known as an extruder, which is so much more today, as it is responsible for making breakfast cereal, snack foods, pet foods and vegetable protein-based meats. The Separation Sciences Program applies centrifuges, distillation and membrane separations equipment critical to the recovery of vegetable oil and further implements the technology in dairy, beverage, and water processing.
Because of the inherent nature of agriculture commodities and their processing, there has been much application of all the center’s research programs to work on research questions germane to the environment, which includes biofuels, non-petroleum-based materials, alternative solvents and processing technologies that reduce energy consumption and recovery of pure water. It is all these capabilities that allow the PERDC to serve its mission to support engineering in Texas, the United States and worldwide through research and education to meet the needs of the commodity industry encompassing food/feed/fuels derived from oilseed and cereal sectors.
The PERDC is the only public fully-equipped oilseed processing facility in the world. That makes it uniquely positioned to leverage its capabilities to support engineering research and training to industry, and other private sector entities. Furthermore, these unique capabilities can be used to leverage opportunity.
The PERDC is truly unique from many perspectives. The center is known worldwide for its pilot-scale food and feed research capabilities and corresponding hands-on practical short course series. The organization has significant experience with a range of commodities, which includes oilseeds, cereals, sugar crops and water reclamation. The center has a reputation with sponsors worldwide as a research and educational facility with significant capability, where projects can be accomplished on short notice, with flexibility, and complete confidentiality.
Although the primary responsibilities of the center are research and development, opportunities exist for the pursuit of graduate studies toward the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. Training has been a major component of the PERDC for over 35 years. By now more than 15,000 employees from industry and government have attended weeklong practical short courses in oilseeds extraction, edible oil processing, food and feed extrusion, water desalination, biodiesel and membrane separation.
The PERDC supports the mission of TEES through its R&D and training with entities throughout the state, the U.S. and world. Because of the center’s unique capabilities, it strives to leverage resources from outside stakeholders and seek out how to use this leverage to increase opportunity for researchers at Texas A&M University System entities that will also serve the center’s mission and vision.