On the way from the place of production to the consumer’s plate, about a third of all food in the world spoils. One of the reasons is the unfavorable storage conditions throughout production and supply chains, including sub-optimal storage at home. Researchers in the Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles Laboratory at Empa in St. Gallen have been working for some time on digital solutions that could reduce this food waste. Now, together with researchers from the University of Bern and the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, the team has developed citrus digital twins and published the results in the journal Natural food.
Plate instead of trash can
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda include food security and sustainable agriculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also sees sustainable digital solutions and innovations as a way to achieve these goals. The team led by Chandrima Shrivastava and Thijs Defraeye now relies on digital information for virtual citrus look-alikes, which they were able to determine by “upcycling”, i.e. updating data little used. “Every container in the world is now equipped with one or more temperature sensors,” explains Empa’s Defraeye. So far, however, the various information hidden in this measurement data has not yet been exploited.
By mathematically evaluating the physical processes, the team was able to use the datasets to track crucial fruit properties over time, revealing and even predicting quality losses and marketing issues. To do this, the researchers tracked temperature changes in 47 citrus containers along the entire transport route and used computer simulations to determine the likelihood of corresponding damage, such as rotting, moisture loss, cold damage, mold or desirable changes such as mortality. fruit fly larvae in digital twins.
This resulted in a wide range of transport conditions and corresponding quality losses. “In our study, half of all shipments were outside of optimal transport conditions,” says Defraeye. The consequences: rot, cold damage, damaged goods. At the end of their 30-day journey, some of the remaining citrus fruits had a shelf life of only a few days.
The solution to the problem, however, is not simply to refrigerate food. On the contrary, a precise adjustment of the transport conditions in the form of a compromise is necessary. If, for example, the lemon travels too cool, pests such as fruit flies or other quality impairments are kept at bay. On the other hand, the fruit is damaged by the cold, which can make it unsaleable.
Using digital twins, the team has now been able to determine the optimal conditions in which relevant risks such as fly infestation, visual defects and cold damage are weighed against each other. to others. Further developments are still needed before the technology can be applied, but the objective is clear: throughout their production and supply chains, companies must be able to integrate virtual fruits into their processes. in order to optimize storage conditions in reality and reduce food losses.
Fruit spies in motion
Empa researchers are also working on biophysical twins of fruits and vegetables to reduce food waste. Here, the properties of crops are perfectly simulated by polymer models. Additionally, the biophysical twins are equipped with sensors that measure temperature and moisture content as they exist on the skin and in the flesh of real food. In this way, the “spy” among the products reports precise data to optimize storage and transport conditions, unlike conventional measurement methods.
More recently, researchers have expanded the range of existing sensor fruits, apple and mango, to include potatoes and avocados of different sizes, as well as improving the materials and manufacturing process.