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University of Northern Iowa Technology Turning into a Commercial Product

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MARION, Iowa The University of Northern Iowa is joining forces with two Eastern Iowa companies to turn research into a commercial product. And the combination of industrial microwaves and industrial-sized mixers could shake up the way industry processes food, chemicals and other substances now.

The patented process comes from UNI's National Ag-Based Lubricants Center (NABL) based in Waterloo. University officials say it has the potential to reduce the amount of "fossil fuel" companies used in processing industrial goods. Right now, energy consumption in the U.S. for industrial needs is about 8.5% of the total amount consumed in the U.S. That's the equivalent of 338 million barrels of oil a year.

The patented process developed by UNI can be used to heat, dry and blend food products, bio-based lubricants, chemicals and greases. The university licensed the technology to Marion Mixers and Cedar Rapids-based AMTek Microwave systems to turn the process into commercial equipment.

Marion Mixers started 75 years ago and designs and makes custom industrial processing equipment in use now in 70 countries. But Doug Grudner, co-owner of the small company, believes the next big thing in the processing industry has come from just a few miles away at the University of Northern Iowa.

"This is a situation where there's no one else in the world, that we know of, that's making a commercially viable mixer-microwave combination," Grudner said.

Grudner said his company, that employs 40 people right now, has built three microwave mixers since starting the intellectual property agreement with UNI. He can't name two of the companies due to contract agreements. But one is a chemical company that is using the newly-designed microwave mixers to produce growth supplements. The other is an egg processor that has a contract to make powdered eggs for the military. The Yokohama Tire Corporation of Japan already has one of the mixers and is using it to produce material that is used to make windshield wipers.

Grudner said switching from systems that use fossil fuel, like propane, to power or heat processes to microwaves can save a lot of time. He cited one case where an industrial process that took 12 hours to complete the normal way was ready in just 40 minutes by using industrial microwaves.

Lou Honary, founding director of UNI's National Ag-Based Lubricants Center, said time is money to businesses and that's why he believes this licensing deal has real potential.

"The price of petroleum has gone up and it's created more of a demand for bio-based products. Doing this kind of technology can help us reduce the manufacturing cost. So now, for the first time, we feel like we can compete with the petroleum products on par. We don't have to beg for assistance or beg people to pay more for it," Honary said.

Honary pointed out industrial-sized microwave mixers have other advantages besides cost. The use of that technology to dry or heat substances produces more uniform results in a safer manner.

Ron Padavich, intellectual property officer for UNI, said he's excited not so much for the commercial prospects at the moment, but what might happen as more and more companies learn of the alternatives.

"They're already looking at other applications for it, so we think it has unlimited potential in the industry," Padavich said.

Padavich said if the microwave mixer sells well, then both the university and local companies could have a winner.

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