Using space science to help prevent food waste

Researchers at Cardiff University are developing new technology which will be able to “smell” when fruit or vegetables are going off, potentially saving tonnes of waste.

According to the UK waste advisory body WRAP, 1.2 million tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables are needlessly wasted each year.

Cardiff University reports a UK based research team is now hoping to develop a quick and cost effective quality assessment system for the food and drink industry, by utilising a technique commonly used in space science. Not only would this help reduce waste, but will also allow food suppliers to pinpoint when the produce is at its peak condition, and therefore has the most nutritional value to consumers.

They have already identified the unique set of molecular markers given off by rocket leaves before they are about to go off, but wanted to see if they could apply this to other produce.

The team includes Dr Hilary Rogers and Dr Carsten Müller of Cardiff University, Dr Geraint Morgan of the Open University and Dr Simon Sheridan of Applied Science & Technology Solutions Ltd.

Hilary Rogers said “We are hoping that by creating a technique that can assess the quality of the produce we will be able to reduce waste by allowing the industry to make better informed assessments of shelf-life. The benefit of using this technology is that it is does not need complex sample preparation.”

Although the team already have had success in being able to identify when the rocket leaves are about to spoil there are a number of logistical issues to overcome before they can make a device suitable for the industry.

The initial work at Cardiff University utilised an expensive laboratory technique, gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) for this research, which is a way of separating and identifying different chemical compounds. This technology has been used for a number of different applications, from climate science to planetary science.

However, to be useful in a supplier or retail environment, the device needs to be made small and portable, but also low cost. Hilary Rogers said “Our biggest challenge now is to take this complex technology and apply it to a cost-effective platform so that it can be used at different points in the supply chain, from production through to retail.”

The research project has been funded by the STFC Food Network+, which brings together researchers from STFC and different disciplines in the agri-food sector with the aim of solving some of the world’s greatest food sustainability challenges.

Geraint Morgan and Simon Sheridan have previously developed a shoebox sized version of a GC-MS, for STFC. This was for used for planetary exploration in the Ptolemy instrument on the Rosetta mission. The team now hope to translate the lessons learnt to develop a bespoke, affordable as well as portable platform.

Geraint Morgan said “Early results show that it is certainly possible. We have identified a significantly lower cost, alternative detector solution that can accurately quantify the marker compounds, at even lower levels than a mass spectrometer. This allows a very simple and rapid sampling and analysis process that could be used by anyone in the value chain. We have developed and evaluated a working prototype and now require the funding to conduct the production design to develop an instrument that can be sold to the various stakeholders in the supply chain and to identify the markers that will enable it to be platform technology suitable for a range of produce.”

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