Real-time food monitoring for better waste management
Niloufar Sharif, a researcher in food science and technology, recently joined EPFL’s Laboratory of Nanobiotechnology. She is working on a three-year research project that aims to develop intelligent packaging technologies. The solutions will address two of the biggest challenges in food and nutrition: food waste and food safety.
At first sight, there is no obvious link between nanobiotechnology and food science. But Niloufar Sharif’s promising project lies at the intersection of these two fields. In January 2020, the young researcher joined Professor Ardemis Boghossian’s team at EPFL’s Laboratory of Nanobiotechnology (LNB), where she will be working on intelligent packaging technologies. She was awarded a three-year postdoctoral fellowship from Future Food, a Swiss research initiative dedicated to expanding research and education in the area of food and nutrition sciences.
Packaging already plays an important role in keeping food fresh and safe to eat. But intelligent packaging offers even greater possibilities. “Intelligent packaging contains small devices, in the form of labels or tags, that can monitor food in storage and throughout the supply chain,” says Sharif. Nanosensors built into the packaging detect molecules or gases produced by microorganisms. Measuring these compounds helps to build a picture of the condition of the food itself and its surrounding environment.
Sharif’s project focuses on the development of carbon nanotube-based sensors that can respond to environmental changes within the packaging. By detecting the presence of specific gases released by microbial activity, the nanosensors would supply real-time information and indicate if a product is spoiled.
A new type of device
“Carbon nanotubes are ideal candidates for designing high-sensitivity, energy-efficient, low-cost and fast-responsive nanosensors,” explains Sharif. “But what’s new in our project is the use of optical sensors.” One of the benefits of these devices is that they can detect molecules remotely: as the carbon nanotubes interact with gas molecules, their fluorescent properties may change in the near-infrared region (one of the infrared light’s spectral regions, invisible to the human eye). The optical sensors will then convert light into wireless signals. Interpreting these signals will indicate whether the food is safe to eat.
Once the devices are ready, researchers at the LNB will need to adjust them so they can respond to different gases. The next challenge will be to incorporate them into packaging as tags or labels, and to test them with real food. “Real-time food monitoring could hold the key to better waste management and safer food,” says Sharif.