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NZ dairy technology now being used overseas

Paul Stephenson

Paul Stephenson, Project Director

16 March 2015 - Technology devised by Wellington engineers from Aurecon, for the New Zealand dairy industry, is now being exported around the globe.

Engineering consultancy Aurecon, in partnership with Fonterra, has designed a process that significantly increases lactose yield when it is being purified from whey, a by-product of cheese and casein manufacture.

Paul Stephenson, Project Director for Aurecon, said that the technology, which was first installed at Fonterra’s Hautapu dairy factory in Cambridge and then at their Clandeboye factory in South Canterbury, is now gaining international recognition to such an extent it has already won three engineering awards, two in New Zealand and one in the United Kingdom, and is being installed in Europe and the United States.

“Fonterra is a significant importer of lactose as well as a producer of the product. Prior to installing the new technology they had been achieving a product yield of 64% to 65% when crystallising lactose from whey but with the process solution we have developed, that yield has now increased to at least 80%, which is a marked increase,” he said.

Lactose, often called milk sugar, is one of the main components of milk. It is a key ingredient in a variety of food and pharmaceutical products including, milk powders, infant formula, confectionary, pharmacy tablets and powder inhalers for asthmatic sufferers.

Stephenson said that Aurecon’s brief was to increase plant capacity and resolve performance deficiencies associated with the traditional manufacture of lactose from whey. 

“Firstly we were able to significantly increase the lactose yield, and we were also able to increase lactose production through improved run times between plant cleaning.”

Aurecon and Fonterra are now taking the new technology called CrystaLac to the world, in conjunction with a United States company, RELCO, which manufactures lactose plants.

“The technology has been installed, and is now operating, in a new plant in the American state of Oregon and another plant is currently being commissioned in a dairy operation in the Netherlands. A third plant is under construction at a dairy factory in Germany.”

Together these three plants will have the capacity to manufacture over 120 000 tonnes of lactose a year, which is more than the total quantity of lactose produced annually in New Zealand. The world production of lactose is over one million tonnes per year so there are still plenty of other existing plants in which to install the CrystaLac technology, in addition to new lactose plant opportunities.

“We have several other project possibilities in the pipeline. These are multi-million dollar projects that take approximately 18 months to execute from the start of the design to customer takeover and operation.

“While the design work, drawings, equipment specification and the writing of the plant control software for the technology was carried out in Wellington for the overseas plants, Aurecon staff are very hands on during the build and commissioning phases of each project with weekly telephone project updates and regular site visits.”

Traditionally lactose is manufactured by concentrating the whey in an evaporator and then cooling the concentrate to form lactose crystals in a crystallizer. The lactose crystals are then separated from the crystalliser slurry and dried.

Aurecon designed a crystallising evaporator, called a CrystaLac, which further increases the concentration of the whey while at the same time crystallising the lactose. The partially crystallised lactose is then cooled in a crystalliser, separated and dried as in the traditional process but with the recovery of more lactose crystal product.

The awards won for the project work to date include a Gold Medal from the Association of Consulting Engineers New Zealand (ACENZ) 2010 for the Hautapu Lactose Evaporator Project, while the Clandeboye Lactose Evaporator Project has been recognised with two awards – Winner, Food & Drink category - IChemE Innovation & Excellence Awards 2013 (Institution of Chemical Engineers – based in UK, international award) and a Silver at the ACENZ Innovate NZ Awards of Excellence 2014.

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