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May 19, 2008

Purdue group modifies machine to help feed Africans

Drawing of an amaranth popper machine
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Purdue University students and faculty have converted an existing machine that pops a nutritious grain so it can be easily and economically utilized by malnourished populations in Africa.

The machine, called an amaranth popper, works something like a popcorn popper. Amaranth grain has been shown to be high in vitamins, minerals and protein. Many believe the ancient grain used by the Aztecs -- which can be used either in flour or in its popped state and can be eaten alone as porridge or in combination with other grains -- could go a long way toward boosting nutrition and combating hunger in countries such as Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, where starvation, disease and HIV infections are common.

Amaranth grows as a vegetable, an ornamental and as a grain. The grain variety has been recently introduced into Africa.

Richard Dugger, an engineer and director of the Seyan Foundation in Culver, Ind., approached Purdue's Technical Assistance Program for help in solving a problem with the amaranth popper machine. He had worked with another university in building the prototype, which was originally powered by electricity.

"After attempting to market this machine to African villages, we discovered that electricity is not always accessible in the most needy areas, but propane is, so it became clear that we must modify the machine to make it marketable," Dugger said. "Our hope is to be able to offer these machines to them so they can easily pop amaranth and hopefully make a dent in the hunger and nutrition concerns in those countries."

Dugger was introduced to the Technical Assistance Program though friend and retired Purdue agricultural economics Professor John Huie. He was eventually connected with Mileta Tomovic, a professor of mechanical engineering technology who works with TAP. Tomovic and graduate student Milan Rakita, with assistance from graduate student Vukica Jovanovic, were able to successfully modify the machine to be powered by propane.

Randy Hountz, TAP associate director, said the amaranth popper project is one example of how the program meets global challenges.

"At TAP, we connect companies with Purdue experts who can help them find solutions to the obstacles they face," Hountz said. "Projects like these are immensely satisfying to our students and faculty because they allow our experts to apply their skills toward solving real-world problems. In this case, it is even better since they may be saving lives."

Rakita, who is pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering technology, said the project was interesting because of the specifications needed for the machine.

In order to pop the amaranth grain correctly, the temperature must be 554-590 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 200 degrees hotter than a popcorn popper and hotter than a microwave. The machine works by blowing air over heated elements. The airflow must be just enough to make the unpopped amaranth grains levitate, preventing them from falling down, but not so much that they are blown too far into the air. Also, the operating function of the propane heating unit had to be co-coordinated closely to the performance of the original.

"I'd never done a project quite like this before," Rakita said. "It involved a lot of trial and error, and there wasn't much literature out there on how to do this. I checked out a lot of books from the library, did research on the Internet and tried to do some simulations, but it turned out that an experiment would be the only reliable method to solve the problem. So Professor Tomovic arranged bringing the popper to our lab. We were also trying to make this an economical machine, so cost was always a factor."

In between his other projects, he worked on the conversion of the amaranth popper for three to four months, he said.

In the end, Rakita, Jovanovic and Tomovic were able to change the heating to a propane-powered system, which meant adding a propane tank and a tube that serves as the combustion and air-mixing chamber. Another goal was to combine components with characteristics just optimal for popping in order to eliminate control unit, which costs about $450. So they also changed the type and the size of the air blower to a new one that gives the required flow parameters and doesn't need regulation.

 The Purdue team's modified machine also is significantly less expensive. The original machine cost about $1,743, and the propane-powered machine's cost is about $782.

"This is an example of the kind of applied research we do every day in the College of Technology," Tomovic said. "It is a great feeling to know that we, along with the Technical Assistance Program, have the potential impact lives of people around the world."

Rakita said he enjoys helping companies and organizations find solutions through the Technical Assistance Program.

"It's a lot of work, but it's very rewarding," he said. "Solving problems is my fun."

Dugger, whose Seyan Foundation has worked for many years assisting with agricultural challenges in Africa, has high hopes for the modified machine's ability to improve the health and quality of life of those in need.

"Amaranth is a grain that we think can meet the nutritional needs of especially children and those with HIV," he said. "This machine will make it possible for people to improve the nutritional quality of their diet with the addition of this grain."

Dugger is traveling to Uganda at the end of May to meet with bakeries and millers for the goal of setting up programs for installation of the grain poppers

Seyan Foundation, in cooperation with Foods Resource Bank in Kalamazoo, Mich., is providing funding to build the machines. Dale Poisel, president Industrial Transmission Equipment Inc. in Plymouth, Ind., has offered to help build additional popping machines based on Purdue's model.

Purdue's Technical Assistance Program works with companies and health-care providers to solve technical problems, improve performance and enhance the quality of life for Indiana citizens. Established in 1986, it is a partnership among Purdue, the state and local communities. According to the program's annual report, TAP served 413 companies and health-care providers in 69 counties during fiscal year 2006-07. Its efforts led to the creation of 547 jobs and nearly $70 million in sales.

Writers:    Kim Medaris, (765) 494-6998,

Marydell Forbes (765) 496-7704,

Sources:   Mileta Tomovic, (765) 494-5866,

Milan Rakita,

Randy Hountz, (765) 494-0766,

Richard Dugger, (574) 842-2770,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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