Sweet projects

Chocolate inspires seniors

Class of 2016

Not many people can say they have made chocolate – but recent MSOE graduates can count themselves among the elite few.

MSOE alumni Sean Van Eysden and Megan Kroll, who graduated in May of 2016 with degrees in mechanical engineering, are among the students who participated in two chocolate-inspired senior design projects in 2016. Both projects were developed for Tabal Chocolate, an organic-certified, bean-to-bar chocolate maker based in Milwaukee.

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Tabal Cocoa Butter Press Senior Design team

In recent years, chocolate has proven a rich curricular enhancement in a variety of departments, including Mechanical Engineering, Physics and Chemistry, and Humanities, Social Science and Communication.

“Chocolate is a unique food,” said Dr. Anne-Marie Nickel, a professor of Physics and Chemistry. “Its molecular structure affects its physical properties, such as melting point and hardness.”

It was through Nickel’s Food Chemistry class that she and her students became acquainted with Dan Bieser, the owner and proprietor of Tabal Chocolate. Bieser made a presentation to Nickel’s students about the science of chocolate. “In talking to Dan, I learned that he had some needs in his business. A mechanical engineering student then took a look at his processes.”

Unlike a candy maker or a chocolatier who may buy chocolate from a factory, Tabal makes its chocolate from scratch, purchasing cacao beans directly from the farmers who grow them. The entire chocolate making process beyond that takes place within the walls of Tabal. First, cacao beans are sorted by hand to assure quality and freshness. Then the cacao is roasted. After being roasted, the cacao beans are cracked and winnowed to separate the skins (outer shell) from the nib (inner bean). Cacao nibs, cocoa butter, cane sugar and vanilla bean are stone ground for two to three days, then the chocolate is tempered and poured into molds. When the chocolate cools in the molds it is ready for packaging.

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Tabal Chocolate Winnowing and Cracking team (with Dan Bieser)

Two proposals for senior projects were developed to improve the efficiency of Tabal’s processes.  Van Eysden, who was a student in Nickel’s Food Chemistry class, was eager to participate. “I had no idea there was so much involved in making chocolate,” he said.

Van Eysden’s team was tasked with creating a vertical press that would separate the by-products of ground up cocoa nibs­—cocoa butter and cocoa powder. While cocoa butter presses already exist in the market, most are too expensive and too large, in both size and need, for craft chocolate-maker like Bieser. Van Eysden’s team members included: Nick Kohn, Bradley Lorr, Karlo Tuazon and Cole Zuege. Drs. Cynthia Barnicki and Joseph Musto served as faculty advisors.

“The experience showed me all of the different directions engineering can go—into food and even sweets, like chocolate,” Van Eysden said. “That was what made it really fun. Not many people don’t like chocolate and being able to make something that is used as part of the chocolate-making process was pretty great. At the end we were able to produce what Dan wanted and that was rewarding, as well.”

Kroll’s team designed a machine that would crack and winnow roasted cocoa beans, separating the outer shell of the beans from the central cocoa nibs.  Kroll’s team members included: Zachary Garside, Benjamin Miller and Adam Woytcke. Faculty advisors were Drs. Mohammed Mahinfalah and Nickel.

“The project related to the mechanical engineering curriculum and qualified for a senior design project because of the design, material selection, and structural analysis that would all have to be done for it,” said Kroll. “While designing and building, Mr. Bieser offered a lot of support along the way and would bring about questions and concerns for components in regards to food safety. For example, if screws had the ability to get into the chocolate this would have very negative outcomes, therefore we had to factor that into our design. These challenges made us brainstorm a lot more options for different components of the machine, and ultimately, I think, result in a better design.”

Since graduating, Kroll has been hired by Rexnord and is working in the Technical Excellence Program where she rotates through four facilities in two years doing different kinds of engineering work. “Chocolate was a very successful way of making the connection from real-life application to the ME curriculum,” she said.

Van Eysden has gone on to work as a patent engineer for Michael Best & Friedrich LLP. “It’s fun to say I’ve made chocolate before,” he said. “Because who doesn’t like chocolate?”

Read more about chocolate-inspired curriculum.

See news coverage of this senior project.

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