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Retrofitted freight container dehydrator moving “more and more to solar power”

Swains Rep. Su’a Alexander Eli Jennings’ retrofitted freight container dehydrator that he developed locally is not only moving “more and more to solar power” but it can also be deployed to “remote islands.”

Dr. Jeff Gwirtz, Kansas State University’s Professor of Food Engineering, milling and flour, was on island last week to conduct an assessment of Su’a’s mill operation producing gluten free breadfruit flour and the container dehydrator prototype. Gwirtz told Samoa News that the operation has “made really good strides”. (See Samoa News edition Nov. 18 for details.)

Brett Weichers, the special projects engineer for Global Mana, a US company that fosters green-smart innovations and is involved in solar energy, accompanied Gwirtz on the trip. Weichers said during a Samoa News interview last week that he was on island to “put out there some concepts for renewable energy.” Additionally, Su’a is “using solar power in two different ways.”

“One aspect is just a passive solar energy using the freight container dehydrator and painting it black and using some other black surfaces to gather heat from the sun and also using solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to store electricity and batteries,” he said.

According to the engineer, electricity is costly, as it’s run by diesel fuel, imported into the territory to run generators. “In the end, having the freight container dehydrator run completely on solar-power, you can take it to remote islands where there are only a few people living,” Weichers explained. “And that’s why the dehydrator is designed in … a shipping container, so the shipping container can go with the standard infrastructure... to remote islands.”

A report by the University of Hawaii Pacific Business Center Program ‘Pacific Regional Breadfruit Initiative’ (PRBI) project to the Bank of Hawaii Foundation, which provided $5,000 grand funding last year for the project, states that the solar dehydrator prototype is extraordinary and shows the best of what America represents in building capacity and self‐reliance in the U.S. territories by a determined individual — referring to Su’a — with the passion and resilience to proceed in spite of considerable challenges.

Among the six main features of the dehydrator is that the “basic shell and passive solar system, which is the container and the additional infrastructure — such as boxes with black insides — effectively generates heat from the sun.

“Active solar subsystem, which is using photo‐voltaic panels to generate electricity that is stored in batteries and used to run the fans and other appliances such as the peeler and chopper,” the report says.

Additionally, the solar dehydrator is easily deployable to remote islands where the primary source of transportation is sea vessels not roads, and highlights the value of engaging local knowledge, familiarity, culture and expertise.

Su’a, who also attended the interview with Weichers and Gwirtz last week, recalled the rough time he went through from the start getting the flour mill operation running using electricity and making modifications to the dehydrator to ensure that the gluten-free flour is a quality product.

When he started the project, it was based on research by University of Hawaii professor Dr. Alvin Huang, who said, “The whole thing about breadfruit in his research is how you dry it. You have to dry it while preserving all the nutrition,” Su’a explained.

“It was very clumsy at the start but we wanted to get the product right,” he said, adding that in October of last year, a shipment of breadfruit flour from his operation was taken to the lab in Hawai’i for testing and the results were “very encouraging.”

“So we started making other modifications, including the dehydrator in our efforts to try and make the product more efficient,” he said.

Between October last year and January 2016, the mill operation did another run “and it was still good,” he said, and noted that in June this year, 50 pounds of breadfruit flour was sent to Dr. Fadi Aramouni, Professor of Food Science and Extension Specialist with the Food Science Institute at Kansas State University, who works, among other things, formulating breads and cookies.

Aramouni did some formulation and took it to the meeting held in Hawai’i in August this year and the professor told the gathering that it “was the best flour he had worked with,” said Su’a, adding that Aramouni was able to do a lot of applications with the flour from American Samoa.

“So to me, I was even encouraged,” Su’a said. “Now we know we’ve got the product, we’re now looking at how we can increase our capacity, and start moving more and more towards solar and get off the [ASPA] grid. We used all the electricity we needed from the beginning of operation.”

He thanked Gwirtz, Weichers and others — who are the experts — working with him in improving the flour as well as modifications to the solar dehydrator.

“In fact right now, I’m very little dependent on electricity. Now I have most of it on solar,” he said.

It’s been a year since Su’a started his operation and the dehydrator prototype. “We had to learn everything from scratch: one is to design the machine; two is to pick the right breadfruit; and then three is to process it,” he said. “And once we had our product, and it looked good, we had to go in and try to figure out how to cook it. Now we are forging ahead at this point.”

“I did all the mechanical stuff that I could think of from the start and I’m to the point where I look at these guys (Gwirtz, Weichers) to fine tune everything and possibly see how we can take this project forward,” said Su’a who added that one issue for the future is using the dehydrator for mass production of breadfruit flour.

Besides being a lawmaker and now a business owner, Su’a is also a certified airline pilot and has now added a new title, a cook — preparing breadfruit pancakes, cookies, shortbread and other goodies that were presented two weeks ago at a local meeting, and were well received, especially the pancakes.