London Calling

Thought For food. Sensing the waste via RFID


Orson Welles once said, “ask not what you can do for your country, ask what’s for lunch,” and let's face it, for most of us it's not an unusual question. In Italy, where the reverence of food runs a close second to their beloved Pontiff, discussions about lunch start immediately after breakfast.

But despite all that, the truth is we all waste food and when viewed globally this wastage is reaching epidemic proportions. Recent European research shows that 40-50% of all food production is being wasted. This has serious implications on the global supply of adequate food stocks and also contributes to escalating food costs. In addition to consumer food waste, the food industry discards €28 billion of spoiled goods every year while within the home €400 worth of fruit, bad meat and other perishables are thrown away by every household every year.

However, things could change. A flexible tag combining RFID and sensor technology developed by Europe's  CATRENE-Pasteur project could drastically cut food wastage. The tag attaches to bulk transportation containers and provides continuously updated data on how long the food they contain will stay fresh. This could help food distributors cut the amount of food spoiled before it reaches to the shops.

This monitoring system integrates an RFID chip, microcontroller and sensor IC into a flexible tag. Researchers from Holst Centre and Imec played a role in integrating the ICs into the flexible tag. This involved developing new low-temperature encapsulation techniques that wouldn’t damage the low-cost plastic substrate used in the tag. To integrate the sensor IC the team developed a new process that protects most of the chip but leaves the sensing area exposed to make measurements. This process attaches the IC to the encapsulation material using an adhesive conductive film that is then machined to the required size and shape using lasers.  This technique ensures the sensing area is left uncontaminated.

Further models for food quality prediction are being developed based on available sensor data and will be translated into algorithms that can be implemented on the smart sensor tag. In addition, technologies are being developed to reduce power requirements and boost read efficiency.

The CATRENE-Pasteur project  says the potential variety of applications from successful development of a marketable platform is vast. They include supply chain uses such as traceability and quality management, domestic applications like detecting hazardous gases such as carbon monoxide, medical monitoring to ensure therapy compliance and construction – for example corrosion monitoring.

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