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Faculty Entrepreneurs
Fred Payne: UK's Cheese Whiz

by Jeff Worley

As Fred Payne pulled himself out of bed to milk 16 Holsteins each morning at 5:30 on his parents' Breckenridge County farm, he never dreamed that milk would become the focus of his life when he became an adult. Payne wanted to follow his father's footsteps into a life of farming, but his dad encouraged him to go to college. Fred did just that, earning a B.S. and an M.S. in agricultural engineering at UK. Then, following his interest in food engineering, he went to work for General Mills. Payne returned to UK and received a doctorate in ag engineering in 1980.

For the past 16 years, his work has focused on developing optical sensors for food process, monitoring and control, and Payne's food of choice has been cheese. If you don't get the connection between fiber optics and cheese, Payne will enlighten you.

"It's really hard to determine the right time for cheese-makers to cut milk curd after it coagulates," Payne explains. "The curd has to be cut into squares at just the right time during the gelling process, or the resulting cheese will be too soft and have a high moisture content." Traditionally, an experienced cheese-cutter makes the determination non-scientifically. But even the most experienced make mistakes.

This is where optical technology comes in.

In the late 1980s while working at UK with Clair Hicks, a dairy technology researcher, Payne discovered that milk curd reflected light at different levels during coagulation. Once this difference was determined, Payne developed a sensor that uses optical fibers to measure the amount of light reflected by the milk.

Here's how the sensor works. Infrared light is carried along an optical fiber to a vat that contains coagulating milk. The light is reflected off the milk particles and is picked up by another optical fiber that travels to a detector. The results are charted on a computer. The amount of reflected light is a measure of physical changes that occur in the protein as the milk coagulates.

Using the results from early tests, Payne developed a computer program that could predict precise times for cutting the gel. He tried this system in a Glasgow, Kentucky, cheese factory and a Greeneville, Tennessee, plant. Both "experiments" were successful, and Payne applied for a patent on his milk coagulation sensor through the University of Kentucky Research Foundation. He received the patent in 1992.

"The bottom line: more high-quality cheese at a lower production cost for farmers," says Payne. "I saw what could be done, so the next step was to develop a company to expand the use of the sensor." Reflectronics Inc was incorporated in 1993 to manufacture the CoAguLite sensor and other fiber optic sensors for applications in the food-, pharmaceutical-, and chemical-process industries.

When asked if this company is making him rich, Payne laughs. "No, but I'm on a path to develop Reflectronics into a viable entity. It has required persistent nurturing since it was formed." Payne says he has very low overhead and has used the $482,000 in sensor sales since 1993 to various cheese manufacturing plants here and abroad to continue to develop sensor technologies and designs that are more "robust" and easier to manufacture.

The single largest obstacle, he says, has been developing a fail-safe and sanitary method of attaching glass fibers of the sensor to a stainless steel probe in a way that meets USDA and FDA sanitary standards. But he solved this problem last year by developing a method for soldering gold-coated fibers onto stainless steel. "The first gold-soldered sensor was installed in December 2002 and has performed exceptionally well since," he says. "Continued success with these fibers will give me the necessary confidence for increased financial commitments."

A second obstacle was potential market size.

Payne explains: "The CoAguLite sensor was focused on cheese manufacture. The number of cheese plants is decreasing at a rapid rate as cheese plants consolidate and modernize into larger plants. In addition, the larger plants are more automated and the process variations that justify the sensor technology are reduced." However, Payne says, the size of cheese vats has grown so tremendously that it's economically important to do select the right cutting time.

"Some of the new cheese vats hold 7,500 to 10,000 gallons of milk. So the plants can't afford to take a chance on a human operator making a mistake on when to do the cutting."

Realizing the limitations of the niche market he found himself in, Payne knew he needed to develop other technologies, so he set to work to do that. The result has been two spin-off sensor technologies.

"These will increase the potential market size for the fiber optic sensors," says Payne. The Intelligent Transition Sensor, a sensor with a built-in computer, detects when fluids in a pipe change from one product to another. A second new sensor, the Light Extinction Sensor, measures the "thickness" of highly concentrated products such as cream. "These sensors will have a market not only in the dairy and food-processing operations, but also in beverage and pharmaceutical operations," Payne says.

It's been gratifying to Payne that more and more of the scientific community has become convinced that his cutting-time-selection technology is a very precise way to determine what's going on within the milk. "One of my units is currently being tested in the food science department at the University of Wisconsin, and recently the University of Minnesota installed a sensor on a small cheese-making system," he says. The University of Murcia in Spain and dairy research centers in Ireland and Australia have tested the sensor.

And the reverberations from word-of-mouth, Payne's primary advertising "approach," are starting to be felt. "Right now I'm working with a cheese company in Wisconsin that is testing a sensor, and inquiries are coming from all over the world," he says. "Just the other day I received a call from a company in Ireland, and some company reps in Australia are talking about putting in a system now.

"It's been an exciting 16-year ride, and things have never looked so bright. In another 10 years I hope to have developed a viable Kentucky-based company that will contribute to the technological infrastructure of the state," says Payne. "All along, the largest benefits for me have been the personal motivation that this challenge offered and the simple joy of developing something useful."