The sensor transmits information from a package to the customer via a reader and the data is saved digitally in a remote server which can be accessed by a mobile phone.
Fresh-cut fruits in a package
Dr. Himadri Majumdar, senior scientist, Printed and Hybrid Functionalities, VTT, told FoodProductionDaily, te sensor was developed as part of a project funded by the European Union within the 7th framework program (EU-FP7) and is currently in the process of being patented.
“The goal was to fabricate a sensor that would detect the spoilage of fresh-cut fruits in a package and the spoilage can be detected electrically,” he said.
“The sensor and the electrical connections needed to be printed, as part of a Printed Electronics development. We looked for various options for sensing ethanol which is also printable.
“As for electrical detection, we wanted to have a separate power-source with the sensor (so no batteries) and so we decided on a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag.
“The RF protocol we chose was near-field communication (NFC) - which are available in smart-phones nowadays. We combined the sensor with a flexible, thin, printable RF tag and added it below the label of the food package.
“The three-year project began in 2011 and ended in 2014.”
EU 7th Framework Programme Agreement
The sensor is developed in the European project SusFoFlex Smart and sustainable food packaging utilizing flexible printed intelligence and materials technologies, EU 7th Framework Programme Agreement No 289829.
Ethanol, in addition to carbon dioxide, was found to be the main spoilage metabolite in fresh-cut fruit. The sensor has potential use in other applications, such as alcometers.
Majumdar said VTT developed the idea in collaboration with industry but it has not looked for any buyers yet. It organised demonstrations for F&B companies at the end of last year.
“The concept can be useful for both consumers and manufacturers/retailers. Consumers can check the quality of the food when they buy them from shops with their NFC-enabled mobile phones. The retailers can monitor the quality of the food over time during its storage in the shop,” he added.
“The NFC data can also be stored in the cloud to compare the quality of the food the day before or with the quality of a similar product between different batches.
“Manufacturers can monitor the supply chain of the food to identify whether the food is exposed to conditions (e.g., high temperature) which leads to the fast spoilage of the food. In all the cases this will lead to the wastage of food. We can also get a quantitative reading of the quality of the food rather than trusting expiry/best before dates.”
126m tonnes of food wastage by 2020
More than 100 tonnes of food products end up in waste annually (estimation 2014) in Europe, and the amount will rise to 126 million tonnes in the year 2020 if nothing changes, according to VTT.
“The same RFID-based system can be used for developing a generic sensor+RFID platform for detecting other spoilage gases (ethylene, amines, etc) and hazardous environmental gases (sulphur oxide in mines) by merely changing the sensor element,” said Majumdar.
“We are now awaiting a possible patent and further development towards a product and licensing the invention to companies that are interested in the product. The price of the sensor will then be low enough for use in food packages.”