A Taste for Chocolate


Born and raised in Lancashire, once at the heart of the industrial revolution, and a keen scientist from an early age, it seems I was destined to become an engineer. But who wouldn't dream of becoming a professional chocoholic? My engineering doctorate (EngD) is allowing me to do just that, working all day with a product that so many people love.

I graduated in 2001 with a first-class master's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Birmingham. By then I had also gained important industrial experience while working for Solutia (formally Monsanto), a rubber chemicals plant in South Wales, during my summer breaks. I am now 2 years into my EngD, which focuses on the manufacture of chocolate crumb, a base product for all of Cadbury's chocolate.

You may not be surprised to hear that consumer demand for chocolate is higher than ever, and still increasing, driving a constant search for new and innovative products. This inevitably means that new or more efficient processing techniques need to be employed in the existing process, whilst ensuring the same quality and characteristic flavour is achieved. Cadbury's chocolate has a unique caramelised flavour which originates from the crumb process. It is my role to understand the flavour kinetics and identify the specific areas in the process where the flavour is developed so that, when new techniques are introduced, the same flavour can be maintained.

It is difficult to measure flavour development on the industrial scale as much of the process is under vacuum. So the processing conditions that crumb experiences have been reproduced in the lab where we can use analytical techniques. Interestingly, chocolate flavour is challenging to measure in a scientific way as it is made up of hundreds of chemical compounds. And ultimately, it is down to personal taste, so my work not only needs to understand the flavour on an industrial scale but also at a consumer level so that Cadbury's chocolate keeps the 'glass and a half' quality.

My project isn't limited to flavour development though. A broad description of my field would be the processes that lead to the formulation of crumb, and the other areas I have looked at are the design of equipment for ease of cleaning, drying kinetics, plant optimisation, imaging techniques, and predictive modelling. Ultimately it will allow Cadbury's to improve the efficiency of their process and increase capacity whilst maintaining the correct flavour and quality.

The reason I chose the food industry is that I believe research in this field has a direct, valued impact on society. Chocolate presents a particular engineering challenge--it is a complex mixture that behaves very differently from an ideal fluid, which means it is difficult to predict its behaviour under processing conditions. It is often the case that I have to use new and innovative measurement techniques such as x-ray tomography. This is a noninvasive technique, which allows me to image the internal structure of crumb. This is important when understanding the mass transfer, heat transfer, and flavour development on a microscale.

Unlike a traditional UK PhD, the research for my EngD is spread over 4 years and I spend approximately 80% of my time in industry, travelling to a range of sites throughout the country. I am also required to complete a series of training courses in advanced food manufacture. I recently attended a course at the University of Nottingham on food flavours, which allowed me to understand and map out the key flavour reactions in chocolate crumb. Another difference is that I have two supervisors, which gives me insight from two different angles on any issues as well as more confidence in my work.

In addition to my love of chocolate, the ability to think on my feet and apply my chemical engineering knowledge to real systems have helped me greatly. However, previous industrial experience is not essential. If one is thinking of doing an EngD, more important is being self-motivated and having good time management and people skills. Much of the know-how of an industrial process is held by the operators. They may not have a scientific background, and I found that I had to swiftly quash any preconceived opinions they might have had about me so I could learn any obscure information about the process.

After my PhD I intend to become a process engineer, whose job is mainly to ensure capacity fits demand, hopefully at Cadbury's but certainly in the confectionery food sector. In the longer term I'd like to move up through the ranks of a large international company within the science and engineering field, eventually to management level. If this doesn't work out, I intend to use the experience I've gained to set up my own business, probably in the field of technological consultation.

However, for now I will be happy completing my engineering doctorate! I find it difficult sometimes to balance my career, a very active lifestyle, and my ambitions to run cross-country at an international level. So if I enjoy my work immensely, I feel it is important not to become too carried away and ensure I value the time I spend away from my work. Even though I may always have some form of chocolate within hand's reach!

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