Ramya Muthurkrishnan
Ramya Muthurkrishnan
Middle School Honorable Mention - 2012 Food Engineering Essay Contest
West Chester, Pennsylvania
Potato Chips

Guy Kawasaki, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, once said, “A good idea is about ten percent implementation and hard work, and luck is 90 percent.” This quote definitely describes potato chips.  Potato chips are born on vast potato fields. The potatoes are harvested soon after the vines have died.  Then, the potatoes are weighed, examined, and tasted in order to make sure that the right potato chips are produced at the end.

The potatoes travel along a conveyor belt where they are destoned. This means that all the stones fall out. They then arrive at an automatic peeling machine, which peels the potatoes until the skin comes off. Next, the potatoes are rinsed in cold water. Now they are ready for the slicing.  Passing through an impaler that cuts the potatoes into thin slices 0.066-0.72 inches thick, the slices almost look like the chips they will become. Straight blades produce regular chips, while rippled blades produce rippled chips. When potatoes are cut, starch is produced, so the potatoes are washed again in cold water to remove this starch. Some manufacturers skip this step because they want the chips to be more natural.

The chips are bathed in a solution that is adjusted for pH, hardness, and mineral content if the color needs to be chemically enhanced. The potato slices pass under air jets that remove the extra water before they enter 40-75 ft troughs that are filled with oil. Companies use either cottonseed oil, corn oil, or a mix of vegetable oils. The oil is kept at a very high temperature, but not high enough for cancerous substances to form. The slices are pushed along by paddles as salt is sprinkled on them overhead. The next step is the flavors. Regular potato chips move on to the next step, but the flavored chips stay.  These chips pass through drums with powdered seasonings in order to be flavored.

The chips start to cool as they exit the trough. Excess oil is removed, and an optical sorter gets rid of burnt slices. Next comes the packaging. The chips are transported to a packaging machine. The weight is measured, and a metal detector checks for anything harmful within the potato chips. The bags come from a roll. The machine knows how many chips should go into the bag because there is a CPU code on the bag that gives it directions. The bag is sealed with heat. The amount of air must also be managed carefully. There cannot be too much air, but the chips should not break. The bags are then
shipped to stores.

An important technology in making chips is the packaging process. Advanced modeling software, developed by software engineers, is used in designing the packaging systems. These software programs are used to create more efficient packaging, so fewer raw materials are used. This means the packaging is cheaper and friendlier to the environment. The science and engineering associated with packaging is very complicated, since the structure is very important. To withstand pressure differences, the structure must be correct.

In order to protect the packaged chips for a long time, chemical engineers must make sure that the chips are processed in a way such that microscopic activity is minimized. Chips must be protected against contamination by microorganisms, and this is taken care of by airtight sealing. This is a hard task, and someone with a lot of knowledge about chips and deterioration mechanisms would be fit for the job. The flavor, color, texture, and moisture and oxygen transfer, are also influenced by packaging.

Material engineers’ key role is to research and analyze the properties of different materials that can serve as appropriate packaging material. The packaging material must have the right strength and should also prevent moisture and oxygen transfer. Testing and careful analysis of data help the engineers choose the right packaging material. Many potato chip companies use metalized material for the chip bags.

Industrial engineers evaluate methods of packaging and try to improve them. They make sure that the bags are easily filled, closed and processed at high-speeds, minimizing waste.

Last but not least, environmental engineers consider the reusability of packaging material if it is non-toxic and not hazardous to the environment. Also, environmental engineers check if the machines used in packaging are non-hazardous to the environment.

Potato chips need to come a long way to get to be ready to eat. Thanking our engineers is a way to appreciate what is on our plate each day.