November 21, 2003
Knack for cleanliness reaps satisfied clients
by Brian Meyer, Agriculture Communications
Mark Rueber runs a tight ship -- and a clean one -- in the Crop Products
Photo by Bob Elbert.|
Mark Reuber has high standards for cleanliness. He's got to, as manager of
the Crop Products Pilot Plant in the Center for Crops Utilization Research.
The pilot plant, occupying a huge space in the Food Sciences Building,
positively gleams. It's filled with shiny stainless steel mills, pumps,
tanks, centrifuges, extruders, injection mold machines, presses and other
"Cleanliness is critical," said Reuber, who for 11 years has managed the
pilot plant (and supervised the students who keep it spic-and-span).
"Cleanup is an important part of organizing a project. It's central to
making a pilot plant what it is -- that step between a lab and a
The Crop Products Pilot Plant is at the heart of the Center for Crops
Utilization Research, which explores new food, feed and nonfood industrial
uses for Iowa crops, with a mission to add value to raw commodities.
The pilot plant contains equipment to take apart, mash, grind, squeeze and
transform crops. The facility handles just about any kind of corn or soybean
processing one might imagine, as well as processing for other kinds of food
As manager, Reuber coaches pilot plant users on making the best use of the
facilities. "I help them understand the equipments' capabilities,
limitations and how to configure them to achieve the desired research
Clients on and off campus
Faculty across campus depend on the capabilities of the pilot plant, whether
it's chemical engineers testing new techniques to make processing more
efficient, food scientists evaluating the stability of new soybean oils, or
animal scientists studying livestock diets. The pilot plant has been a key
to ISU's development of crop-based products like degradable plastics and
wood-product adhesives, as well as evaluation of soy foods like soy milk and
tofu for export markets.
Many private companies also have taken advantage of the pilot plant. The
Center for Crops Utilization Research has a small-business incubator program
for innovative companies to test processes and formulations they hope to
develop into products and services.
"Our industrial clients really love the pilot plant," Reuber said. "We've
worked hard to deliver good service to them. It's a great opportunity for
young companies to use ISU's facilities and expertise to get a good start."
Companies like Proliant, MicroSoy, ExSeed Genetics, Kemin Americas and
Ajinomoto have taken advantage of the pilot plant. Proliant, housed at the
ISU Research Park, has used the pilot plant to develop protein products for
food, nutrition and human health industries. The company has built a new
plant in Boone to make products using technology developed at the ISU
With three main groups of users -- students, faculty and industrial clients
-- Reuber preaches the virtues of schedules. A graduate student stops by his
office with a scheduling question. He reminds her, "Prior planning prevents
He said, "We walk a tightrope with accommodating the needs of our users. All
are under different needs and pressures, and we do our best to keep them
Reuber became interested in new crop uses as a graduate student in agronomy
in the 1980s. "I took a crops utilization class and became excited when I
saw the potential for adding value to Iowa's crops," he said.
He went to work as a technician for Larry Johnson, the director of the
Center for Crops Utilization Research. By the time he finished his master's
degree, the new pilot plant was nearing completion. He initially hired on as
the "oilseed extraction guy." His penchant for careful detail work fit well
with research that required the use of hazardous solvents, where safety was
He then was named manager of the entire plant, and helped bring the rest of
the labs and facilities online.
"I was the first person to use the pilot plant," Reuber recalls. "I remember
standing in this mostly empty, cavernous room with a Japanese 1940s-era
screw press, collecting oil from soybeans. We've come a long way since then,
and I believe our facility is the best in the country."
For Reuber, working with students is a satisfying perk of the job. Each year
he assists food science and human nutrition faculty in a dozen labs held in
the pilot plant.
"We're not teaching them how to push buttons on equipment. They get the
science and theory behind food processing."
In a product development course, Reuber advises students on developing their
formulations. Cleanliness again comes to the fore in a food microbiology
class. In a role-playing exercise, Reuber is an irate plant manager
complaining to a group of consultants (the students) about shoddy plant
"I take them on a tour of the plant, purposefully leaving one piece of
equipment uncleaned to see if they can find the problem. Some have a flair
Reuber also helps student clubs make foods like ice cream and frozen yogurt
for Veishea and other events. He has hosted design and English students who
find the pilot plant's elaborate industrial milieu a source of inspiration.
Reuber sees the pilot plant as ideally positioned for evaluating future
research on genetically modified crops. "We have the capabilities to process
these crops in ways to preserve their special properties."
Reuber says his philosophy is to work hard and be honest. "While I'm pushing
myself hard, I try not to take myself too seriously. That's the challenge."
No doubt, Reuber runs a tight ship. Does it carry over to his life outside
"You should see the dirty dishes stacked up in my sink."
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
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