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How physicists fit into the food industry

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Physicists create economic value across most sectors, from finance to pharma to food.

The ability to break problems down to first principles, generate testable hypotheses, work with complex maths, create computer simulations to predict outcomes, and so on, are all core transferable skills that can be applied across different industries to solve problems.

And we’ll always have problems to solve: whether it’s safe and renewal supply of energy, nano-machines to cure disease in-situ, or crop monitoring and harvest forecasting, physicists will be at the heart of developing the science to unlock technology solutions.

Physics is undoubtedly vital to my own area, food manufacturing: new and improved measurement and imaging techniques, ever-increasing computational power at lower cost, smaller size sensors – these are all underpinned by physics.

Further, when we consider what makes food products taste delicious, knowing the physics of oral processing, from smell to first-bite to bolus formation, and linking this to food microstructure, through factory production to the raw materials, are central concerns. Understanding the soft-matter physics of food microstructure, how it is created, and how it is experienced by consumers are all fertile areas for physicists to contribute to the food manufacturing sector.

There is, however, a certain lack of awareness in academia and among new graduates of how non-trivial and interesting these problems can be. Food systems like ice cream and emulsions are complex, multi-phase and multi-scale – and since food is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, the economic impact of solving problems can be very significant, and personally rewarding.

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Physicists are probably the least represented of the STEM subjects in food R&D, so it’s important to me to highlight how physicists can add significant value. In my experience, compared to chemical engineers and food scientists, physicists think about problems in a different, but highly complementary, way. So reinforcing the multidisciplinary nature of innovation is very important, and the IOP has a track record on reaching beyond traditional physicist roles to make value-added connections. To take just one example, I was invited to the Physics Student Society careers event at Exeter University to talk about being a physicist working in the food sector.

In my early career in industrial food R&D, too, my professional accreditation from the Institute improved credibility with peers and employers. When I was elected as a fellow in 2002, this was with a large sense of personal achievement, particularly as I had chosen not to undertake a PhD after graduating in 1988. One of my earliest publications was in IOP’s Physics World in 1992 – an unusual choice for a food-related article, but I wanted to stay connected to this important international publication for physicists, and, unexpectedly, this set me up for more unusual publications, like a science review of microwave oven technology portrayed in computer games for PC Zone in 2007.

More recently, the IOP has been instrumental in helping me connect to the wider physics community by taking a lead role in setting up open innovation events and creating the Physics in Food Manufacturing summit set to take place on 15 April – a great opportunity to bring together different people and perhaps to begin new collaborations and develop new competitive edges.

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John Bows

John Bows

John Bows is senior principal scientist at PepsiCo R&D Snacks, and an IOP fellow
John Bows
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