The Importance of Ketchup
After coming from Laramie, Wyoming, where I visited Metrohm Raman (blog post coming soon!), the temperatures here in Toronto don’t feel that bad. The first item on our itinerary here was visiting two local Metrohm customers with Parviz Shahbazikhah, sales rep at Metrohm Canada: Select Foods and the research group of Prof. Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto. On these visits we learned some surprising things …
The Ketchup Wars
Melissa Hill, Quality Assurance Manager at Select Food Products Limited, took us on a tour of the company’s production plant. The company specializes in sauces and condiments. Each minute, 140 bottles of ketchup alone are filled at the Toronto plant. Select Foods didn’t start producing ketchup until May last year, and when they did, it happened with a bit of a bang. At the time, Heinz had just recently closed their Canadian ketchup plant, meaning that the Heinz ketchup for Canada was now coming from the U.S. This decision didn’t sit well with the Canadian people, and competitor French’s, till then mainly known for their mustard, took the initiative and entered the ketchup business—and Select Foods got the deal and is now producing all French’s brand ketchup for the Canadian market.
A Facebook post praising French’s ketchup and denouncing Heinz for pulling their production out of Canada went viral (by now it’s been shared ca. 160’000 times) and inspired Canadian pride. «Canadians seem to be very emotional about their ketchup», Melissa jokes as she tells us the story. With this Facebook post, a whole social media movement was born encouraging Canadians to buy French’s ketchup instead of Heinz.
Quality Assurance at Select Foods
In addition to ketchup, Select Foods also produces mustards, BBQ sauces, salsas, salad dressings, and much more, for various brands, including their own Select brand. Each batch of each of the different products has to be analyzed for a number of parameters to meet the quality standards defined by Select and their customers, including French’s. «We analyze 180 to 250 samples a day», says Melissa. Until a few years ago, titrations to determine pH value, acidity, and salt content were done manually. «On the manual titration setup, it took three people to analyze the samples that one person can do on our Metrohm titrator.»
From Today’s Ketchup to Tomorrow’s Fuels
For our next customer visit, Parviz took us to downtown Toronto to visit the research group of Prof. Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto. The group is famous in the science world for its research in photovoltaics, among others. For Parviz, they are an important customer because they have contributed to a large part to the success of Metrohm Canada’s electrochemistry sales: starting with just a single instrument, they’ve expanded their Metrohm fleet to almost 30 potentiostats. We entered two of their labs and Metrohm Autolab potentiostats seem to be everywhere, even stacked on top of each other (to be fair, this is in part due to renovation works in the building and the limited lab space resulting from these, but there are A LOT of potentiostats).
At the University of Toronto, we met with two postdoctoral research fellows from the group, Dr. Ali Seifitokaldani and Dr. Cao Thang Dinh. They told us about one of their newer projects, which is concerned with renewable fuels. The idea is to turn carbon dioxide, which is emitted when burning fuels, back into fuels such as ethanol or ethylene and to thereby close the carbon cycle. The scientists use electrocatalysis to convert CO2 to fuels. All the electrochemical characterizations are done using Metrohm Autolab potentiostats.
The conversion of CO2 into higher-energy products isn’t 100% energy-efficient, meaning that it costs more energy than can be won from the produced fuel. To make the process economic, the energy-efficiency has to be as high as possible and the fuel produced has to be less expensive than the current market price. Also, to make sense ecologically, the conversion has to be powered with renewable, zero-CO2 electricity.
There’s a huge interest in CO2 conversion because it gets rid of the greenhouse gas and produces fuel at the same time, and it is also a promising approach for storing energy: renewable energies, e.g., solar and wind energy, can’t necessarily be produced at the time they’re needed, so they need to be stored. «At the moment, we’re exporting electricity to the U.S. and sometimes paying them to take excess electricity», explains Ali. It would therefore be interesting to store excess energy by using it to convert CO2 to a higher-energy product that could later be burned to release the energy when it’s needed.
Ali and Cao, together with some of the other researchers from the Sargent group, are currently competing in the COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. This competition, which aims at developing breakthrough technologies that will convert CO2 emissions into valuable products and is sponsored by non-profit organizations as well as industry partners, shows just how big the interest in CO2 conversion technology is: the winning teams will receive $15 Million prize money. The team from the Sargent group has made it to the semifinals so far.