From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

A Houston-based team of scientists and students have developed a low-cost ventilator. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University students and staff team up with Canadian company to make low-cost ventilators

hi, tech

As the COVID-19 case numbers continue to grow, hospitals around the world are either experiencing or expecting a shortage of ventilation units. In Houston, a team of students and staff at Rice University have designed a solution.

Along with Canadian global health design firm, Metric Technologies, the Rice team has developed an automated bag valve mask ventilator that can be crafted for less than $300. Moreover, the team expects to share the designs so that these low-cost machines can be produced everywhere.

The project is being called Take a Breather and was inspired by an early prototype that a group of engineering seniors developed in 2019 at Rice's Brown School of Engineering's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, or OEDK. The idea was to take a bag valve mask, which medical professionals use manually by squeezing with their hands, and create a device that can instead compress the bag automatically.

The parts of the device are largely created via 3D printing and laser cut, according to a press release from Rice, and only took around a week to prototype. While the original project was created to help emergency medicine professionals using a manual ventilator, the device is very relevant in the current coronavirus crisis.

"The immediate goal is a device that works well enough to keep noncritical COVID-19 patients stable and frees up larger ventilators for more critical patients," says Amy Kavalewitz, executive director of the OEDK, in the release.

As principal at Metric Technologies, Dr. Rohith Malya, who is assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and an adjunct assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice, saw the growing need for for automated ventilator masks in emergency medicine.

"This is a clinician-informed end-to-end design that repurposes the existing BVM global inventory toward widespread and safe access to mechanical ventilation," Malya says in the release.

According to Malya, more than 100 million bag valve masks are produced annually. The designed device, which can work with these bags, has been named the ApolloBVM — a nod to when President John F. Kennedy announced from the Rice campus that it was his mission to get America to the moon.

"This project appeals to our ingenuity, it's a Rice-based project and it's for all of humanity," he says in the release. "And we're on an urgent timescale. We decided to throw it all on the table and see how far we go."

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Innovation pioneers on why Pumps & Pipes is so uniquely Houston

A Day of Discussion

Pumps & Pipes 2022, Houston’s premier innovation event, is rapidly approaching on December 5 from 8 am-3 pm at the Ion.

Leading up to this exciting event, InnovationMap spoke with several of the speakers representing various industries to ask them, "What makes Pumps & Pipes uniquely Houston?"

Here are their responses:

Dr. Alan Lumsden, chair of cardiovascular surgery at Houston Methodist and Pumps & Pipes founder:

“…What can we learn from one another? What is inside the other person’s toolkit? A lot of solutions are already out there but sometimes we don’t have the ability to see into their toolkit. This has become the driving force behind Pumps & Pipes throughout the last 15 years…”

Dr. Lucie Low, chief scientist for microgravity research at Axiom Space:

“‘Houston, we have a problem’ — everyone knows Houston as a major player in the aerospace industry as highlighted by this famous quote from Apollo 13. What people may not know and what is exciting to me about Houston are the opportunities for collaboration with other industries that can help drive our mission to build communities of healthy humans in space. With the largest medical center in the world right next to Johnson Space Center, Houston is a prime city for innovation at the intersection of medicine and space.”

David Horsup, managing director of technology at OGCI Climate Investments:

“The remarkable diversity of thought, culture, and expertise that exists in Houston creates an incredible cauldron for innovation. The city has been the leading light in pushing frontiers in energy, aerospace, and medicine for many years, and Pumps & Pipes is a powerful ‘node’ for some of the brightest minds across these industries to connect, collaborate, and innovate. I am extremely excited to see how Houston is pivoting to embrace the challenge that climate change is presenting, and the city will play a defining role going forward.”

Purchase tickets for Pumps & Pipes here and follow Pumps & Pipes on social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.

Houston startup founders report on clean energy tech efficacy

seeing results

A team from Rice University has uncovered an inexpensive, scalable way to produce clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

In research published this month in the journal Science, researchers from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics, in partnership with Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, detail how they converted ammonia into carbon-free fuel using a light-activated catalyst.

The new catalyst separates the liquid ammonia into hydrogen gas and nitrogen gas. Traditional catalysts require heat for chemical transformations, but the new catalyst can spur reactions with just the use of sunlight or LED light.

Additionally, the team showed that copper-iron antenna-reactors could be used in these light-driven chemical reactions, known as plasmonic photocatalysis. In heat-based reactions, or thermocatalysis, platinum, and related precious (and expensive) metals like palladium, rhodium, and ruthenium are required.

“Transition metals like iron are typically poor thermocatalysts,” Naomi Halas, a co-author of the report from Rice, said in a statement. “This work shows they can be efficient plasmonic photocatalysts. It also demonstrates that photocatalysis can be efficiently performed with inexpensive LED photon sources.”

Halas, Rice's Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was joined on the project by Peter Nordlander, Rice’s Wiess Chair and Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Rice alumni and adjunct professor of chemistry Hossein Robatjazi. Emily Carter, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and Environment, represented Princeton University.

“These results are a great motivator," Carter added. "They suggest it is likely that other combinations of abundant metals could be used as cost-effective catalysts for a wide range of chemical reactions.”

Houston-based Syzygy, which Halas and Nordlander founded in 2018, has licensed the technology used in the research and has begun scaled-up tests of the catalyst in the company’s commercially available, LED-powered reactors. According to Rice, the test at Syzygy showed the catalysts retained their efficiency under LED illumination and at a scale 500 times larger than in tests in the lab setup at Rice.

“This discovery paves the way for sustainable, low-cost hydrogen that could be produced locally rather than in massive centralized plants,” Nordlander said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Syzygy closed its $76 million series C round to continue its technology development ahead of future deployment/

Houston is home to many other organizations and researchers leading the charge in growing the hydrogen economy.

Earlier this year, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced he's determined to position the city as hub for hydrogen innovation as one of the EPA's Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs. Organizations in Texas, Southwest Louisiana and the surrounding Gulf Coast region, known and HyVelocity Hub, also announced this month that it would be applying for the regional funding.

And according to a recent report from The Center for Houston's Future, the Bayou City is poised to "lead a transformational clean hydrogen hub with global impact."

7+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for December

where to be

Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events, and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this December — like pitch nights, workshops, conventions, and more.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


December 1 — 2022-2023 UH Energy Symposium Series

The Division of Energy and Innovation, along with the UH Center for Carbon Management in Energy, are hosting a day-long symposium to discuss pathways and solutions to make Texas carbon neutral by 2050. UH experts and energy industry partners will serve as panelists to discuss the drivers, opportunities, and challenges for change, and more.

The event is on Thursday, December 1, from 9 am to 7 pm, at University of Houston (Houston Room - University of Houston Student Center South). Click here to register.

December 5 — Pumps & Pipes: Ion to Infinity

Highlighting innovations in Web3, Artificial Intelligence, Extended Reality, and Robotics, attendees will hear from visionaries across medicine, energy, and aerospace who are developing and launching technologies in these fields.

The event is on Monday, December 5, from 8 am to 3 pm at The Ion. Click here to register.

December 6 — Softeq Venture Studio Demo Day

The Softeq Venture Studio's 2H 2022 cohort is the largest yet with 22 member companies, which brings the total portfolio to 49 companies. This cohort includes entrepreneurs from several global locations as diverse as the United Kingdom, Iceland, Mexico, and Peru. In this capstone event, founders have three minutes each to present their pitch deck, demo their product, outline their ask, and answer questions.

The event is on Tuesday, December 6, from 6 to 9 pm at Queensbury Theatre. Click here to register.

December 7 — Houston Veterans In Residence Showcase

Bunker Labs’ Veterans in Residence Showcase is a nationwide event, celebrating over 500 veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs launching their startups and businesses.

The event is on Wednesday, December 7, from 6 to 8 pm at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

December 8 — 8th Annual SWPDC Symposium on Pediatric Device Innovation and Business Meeting:

The 8th Annual SWPDC Symposium on Pediatric Device Innovation and Business Meeting will feature the keynote presentation "Non-Dilutive Federal Funding for Pediatric Device Startups" by Michael Heffernan, Director of Research & Technology at Fannin Innovation Studio.

The event is on Thursday, December 8, from 4 to 7 pm, at the JLABS@TMC. Click here to register.

December 8 — HAN Holiday Party

Join the Houston Angel Network for their annual party.

The event is on Thursday, December 8, from 6 to 8 pm, at Postino City Centre. Click here to register.

December 10 — TXRX Holiday Make-a-thon

Get your festive fun on by participating in one of our hands-on workshops. Learn more about how we make through our live demos.

The event is on Saturday, December 10, from 3 to 6 pm, at TXRX. Click here to register.

December 13 — Future of the Houston Region

The reimagined Future of the Houston Region event features one of the fastest-growing areas in the Houston region - Montgomery County. Conversations will be focused on the county’s rapid growth, business developments within the area, future plans of expansion and its overall importance to the region.

The event is on Tuesday, December 13, from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott. Click here to register.

December 15 — Engage VC: Climate Capital & Energy Capital Ventures

Join HX Venture Fund at the Ion on December 15 to hear a conversation moderated by Burak Powers, Strategy Director of Circularity & Low-Carbon Solutions at LyondellBasell and featuring Michael Luciani, Managing Partner of Climate Capital, Vic Pascucci, Co-Founder and Managing General Partner of Energy Capital Ventures, and Moji Karimi, Co-Founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory. This dynamic group will discuss their perspectives on venture investing in the energy transition space, current and future trends, and how startups can find great VCs among other topics.

The event is on Thursday, December 15, from 8:30 to 10 am at the Ion. Click here to register.