Niagara College won’t go breaking any ‘hearts’ this Valentine’s Day

Niagara College (NC) engineering student Jacob Morris, left, with mechanical engineer and research lead, Gord Maretzki, at NC’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, on Thursday demonstrated the art of shelling heartnuts on this prototype, designed in cooperation with Niagara region nut grower Linda Grimo. Research for the prototype was funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev) and the Niagara Region.

Niagara College won’t go breaking any ‘hearts’ this Valentine’s Day

That’s because its Research & Innovation team has discovered a way to automate the process of cracking delicious heartnuts without breaking their heart-shaped shells or kernels!

After a 20-year search for a mechanized ‘heartnut sheller,’ local industry partner Grimo Nut Nursery has found new hope with the team of students, faculty and research experts with the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre at Niagara College (NC).

Heartnuts are in high demand due to their attractive shape, mild subtle flavour and heart-healthy properties; however, without automation, commercialization of the heartnut-growing industry in Ontario has stalled. Until now, this specialty nut has had to be cracked manually due to the complexities of precisely breaking each nut, so the heart-shaped shell opens like a locket and inside remains an intact, heart-shaped kernel.

Grimo Nursery has partnered with the NC Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre for its research team to design, develop and fabricate a working prototype that automatically cracks heartnuts without breaking the aesthetic heart-shaped shell or inside flesh. There have been four other previous attempts, (by other businesses, individuals and another academic institution) at producing such a device.

“Niagara College was our last hope,” said Linda Grimo owner, along with her father Ernie, of the nut nursery. “Everyone struggled with the main complexity of aligning the nut to be oriented to crack on its seam, as it required innovative thought and an understanding of computer and electronic knowledge.”

The project was certainly a challenge, agrees Gord Maretzki a mechanical engineer and research lead with the Research & Innovation (R&I) division at NC. “We had to design a machine that was able to crack the variations in organic structure because each nut is asymmetrical and takes a different amount of cracking force.”

During the project Maretzki mentored two engineering students to have a crack at the complex mechanism. They incorporated the array of technology at their disposal within the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, such as a state-of-the art 3D printer and a lab to devise a programmable logic controller and electrical pneumatic circuit schematics.

 Like many, Brian Cunningham, an electrical engineering technology student and part of the research team at NC, had never heard of the heartnut before starting his research co-op in October, along with fellow mechanical engineering student Jacob Morris. “This challenge was very intriguing, but the most exciting part for me was the prospect of helping to expand a relatively niche industry right here in the Niagara Region. I’ve lived here my whole life, and seeing local businesses grow gives me a lot of pride.

“This experience has been nothing short of fantastic! Gord Maretzki has been an amazing mentor – he’s overflowing with knowledge and experience so I’ve tried to absorb as much information as I can,­­” added Cunningham.

Combined with his class studies at the College, Cunningham says he’s been able to gain a greater balance of technical skills, theoretical knowledge, and a better understanding of how a research and development project comes together as a whole. “I’ve also been able to improve my interpersonal skills by working directly with actual clients and collaborating with my research team,” he said.

As for Grimo, she is quick to praise the research team at NC. “The Niagara College team was enthusiastic right from the start. They saw the value in our idea. They developed a work plan and have kept us engaged in the process.

“We are so impressed with the students’ professionalism and their keen interest.

“It’s almost hard to believe that ‘we’ are contributing to their real-world experience when they have made this possible for us.”

This applied research project was made possible with funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev) and the Niagara Region.


Grimo Nut Nursery, a company and farm based out of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., since 1974, is best known for selling Canadian hardy nut and fruit trees to backyard growers and nut-tree farmers. Trees for sale from their 14-acre farm include walnut, hazelnut, butternut, chestnut, pawpaw, quince and mulberry, to name just a few.  The heartnut is a cultivated variety of the Japanese walnut tree that has been shown to be well-suited to the Great Lakes fruit-growing region. The heartnut is less bitter and has twice the protein and fibre than the English walnut cultivate; it is loaded with antioxidants and is low in cholesterol.

Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division provides real-world solutions for business, key industry sectors and the community through applied research and knowledge transfer activities. We conduct projects that provide innovative solutions, such as producing and testing prototypes, evaluating new technologies, and developing new or improved products or processes for small-and medium-sized businesses. Students and graduates are hired to work alongside faculty researchers to assist industry partners leap forward in the marketplace. For more information, visit

Niagara College offers more than 100 diploma, bachelor degree and advanced level programs, as well as more than 600 credit, vocational and general interest Continuing Education courses.