A miniature and cost effective single chip sensor that paves the way for the monitoring of ethylene levels in fruit consignments throughout the supply chain could drastically cut food waste and boost industry profitability, said the Dutch scientists behind the technology.
Ethylene is a gaseous plant hormone, produced by fruit, and responsible for its ripening.
The team from the Holst Centre and imec said the tiny single chip electrochemical sensor is cheap enough to be used in individual fruit shipping containers. And, with a detection limit of 200-300 parts per billion (ppb), sufficiently sensitive to be able to replace the large and expensive table top equipment currently employed in fruit distributions centres.
Recent improvements have shown that the ethylene sensor is able to detect 100ppb steps in concentrations below 1ppm, which makes it directly useful in warehouse applications, said the researchers.
“There has been a huge desire by industry to be able to monitor levels of ethylene throughout the transport, storage and distribution of fruit. Up until now that hasn’t been possible because of cost and the size of equipment,” imec senior principal scientist Sywert Brongersma told FoodProductionDaily.com.
He added: “But thanks to our system, they can now do that – it’s revolutionary.”
The sensor is fabricated on cheap substrates such as foil, glass or silicon which makes it cost effective enough for large numbers of the devices to be used – either in containers or distribution operations, said Brongersma.
The device is based on a non-acidic electrolyte that does not evaporate.
Significant food waste and cost savings
He said the technology provides industry players with more information than previously on levels of ethylene in fruit cargoes– which is crucial.
“During transport say from South America, companies want ethylene levels to be lower so the fruit doesn’t ripen before it reaches retailers,” said the scientific expert. “However the gas is also sprayed in high concentrations (~1,000 ppm) in the warehouse, to force fruit to ripen, so it is ready to eat when it reaches consumers.“
Knowing what levels of ethylene the fruit has been exposed to prior to sending it to retailers will allow firms to more accurately gauge any further exposure to the gas to ensure the product is in optimum condition on reaching supermarkets shelves.
“We are convinced that our chip will lead to a significant reduction in food waste. More information gives industry greater control,” he said.
Flexible packaging potential
The group said it is actively looking for partners to develop the technology into a commercial product. At present the team estimate that each sensor costs around €50 per unit but Brongersma said this could be reduced by a factor of ten with the right industry backing and development.
The scientists are actively testing the sensor in a real food environment at internationally renowned Wageningen University.
They are also working hard on further miniaturizing the sensor, and increasing the performance towards lower detection limits (~10-20 ppb).
Brongersma confirmed that the team is examining extending application of the technology into flexible packaging.
“We are hoping to develop the sensor for use on flexible packaging with the focus on integrating it into the substrate. The technology is viable but again we are looking for industry partners to develop and commercialise it,” he said.