From beloved West African cuisine to Canadian road salt, corrosion study breaks new ground

Chemistry professor Yolanda Hedberg and PhD student Robert Addai in Western’s Material Science Addition lab. Credit: Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications

What’s a traditional West African dish got to do with the road salt that’s strewn across the snowy streets of Canada every winter?

Both subjects are equal passions for chemistry Ph.D. candidate Robert Addai, who works at Western’s Material Science Addition lab and studies how metals corrode when they come into contact with foods and road salts.

It all started with fufu, a common staple in her diet in Ghana. A starch that is common in West African cuisine, traditionally fufu is prepared by pounding cassava, a tropical root vegetable. This laborious process can take hours.

The preparation of fufu has evolved, in the same way that butter and other staple foods have become almost exclusively machine-produced. Most people now use a metal “fufu hammering machine” that offers the repetitive hammering action in a hands-free form, Addai explained.

“It’s a delicious food, but it takes a long time. The machines also work in the form of friction, by hammering. My research focuses on whether metals are released from the machine in the foufou,” said Addai.

Addai measures chromium, iron, manganese and nickel present in samples of fufu, by testing a slurry of the food in contact with samples of two types of carefully cleaned stainless steel. After breaking it down in a digester, he analyzes the solution for trace metals using a specialized tool to quantify metal ions. After reviewing the initial results, he found the highest concentrations of iron, followed by manganese, chromium and nickel.

Addai is testing fufu made from powdered cassava flour, which is the most common preparation for those preparing food in Canada, as well as homemade samples of traditional machine-made fufu.

Its samples are tested after 30 minutes, 24 hours and a week, because the fufu can be cooked longer or shorter. The release of metals increases over time, Addai found. In some samples, there are potentially harmful levels of nickel and chromium, which have been linked to possible health effects such as respiratory and cardiovascular problems, as well as certain types of cancer.

Health issues originally piqued Addai’s interest. He wanted to know if metals in contact with food enjoyed by friends and family played a role in disease rates.

“There are many people, not only in Ghana but all over the world, especially in the Diaspora, who are suffering from cancer, heart disease and other diseases. Scientifically, we don’t always know the cause. J So I wanted to study this (food preparation) from the beginning to check if some of the diseases come from this food,” he said.

There are also other concerns, such as the type of metal used to create the fufu machines.

“They use recycled materials, which can contain a lot of lead,” said chemistry professor Yolanda Hedberg, Addai’s supervisor. She is conducting similar research on the prevalence of metals in dairy products.

Addai’s deep dive into fufu led him to similar research into the corrosion of metals in an environment far removed from Ghanaian cuisine: an icy Canadian road.

Hedberg needed a researcher to work on a new project in the Material Science Addition lab. Addai had the knowledge and the will to jump in, Hedberg said.

In addition to investigating metals in contact with fufu, Addai is now investigating different brands of road salt used for melting and grip on roads during Canada’s colder months. Although it straddles two seemingly disparate fields – from fufu to road salts – Addai conducts the same kind of basic research in both projects.

Last winter, Addai began testing the same stainless steel squares he used for his cassava research. This time they were set up in a Western Research Parks parking lot for a small pilot project. The metal was left outside for two months and monitored as it was sprayed weekly with nine different varieties of road salt.

Addai will continue this work next winter, along with other researchers, to examine the environmental effects of popular types of road salt, including the type used by Western’s facilities management team.

“We hope to recommend the best product, to balance efficacy with environmental impact,” he said.

Addai said it can sometimes be tedious to wait for the results of his studies, many of which go through multiple stages and phases. It takes time to reach the final analysis stage.

But the challenges of examining the smallest particles of fufu didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for the subject or the food.

Addai is soon returning home to Ghana and said he is looking forward to enjoying the fufu prepared by his relatives, instead of the version he makes in Canada with cassava flour.

“I said to my family, prepare the fufu,” Addai said with a laugh. “It’s the first thing I want to do. I miss it so much.”

Provided by University of Western Ontario

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