Using wireless communications devices to stop food waste

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Food waste is a growing problem globally, especially as the effects of climate change negatively impact food supplies. Currently, around 35-40% of food produced is disposed of because it is not kept at the appropriate temperature. Each item must be kept at the appropriate temperature to minimize loss of quality or spoilage, especially when items are shipped.

Cassella CristianCristian Cassella, Assistant Professor in Northeastern’s College of Engineering, has been developing a novel method of cold chain temperature monitoring that can be used to monitor food storage temperatures using nano and micro communications devices.

Current food storage monitoring is relatively basic and has remained largely unchanged for decades. While there has been a shift to digitized tracking, many producers still rely on just a basic thermometer to watch over an entire storage unit. Storage systems can range from a small refrigerator to massive walk-in storage rooms and containers. Typical thermometers can be unreliable, as they cannot accurately monitor the entire unit. The air might be cold enough where the thermometer is placed, but it could be out of temperature elsewhere, leading to food spoilage. They also have the potential to break down or run out of battery.

Instead, the wireless communications devices, known as Parametric Alarm Sensor Tags (PASTs),  can monitor individual food items within the storage system using changes in radio frequencies caused by passing specific temperature thresholds.

Nano and Micro Communications Technology for Temperature Monitoring

PASTs are nano and micro communications devices that not only allow for closer monitoring of food, but also enable easier management. The devices can observe individual items within a storage unit and help maintain the correct temperature for each item. The system will send an alert immediately after temperatures fall out of the approved range.

“With our system, you can keep track of every item so that if even one item goes above range, you can immediately know and correct it,” Cassella notes.

The system is designed to require minimal maintenance, meaning that it can operate without being charged for longer periods than traditional systems. Additionally, the production cost is minimal. Therefore, these innovations should go a long way to improve food storage and transportation.

“The system allows you to read out temperature violations from a much larger distance than current technologies,” said Casella. “Plus, it does all of this without batteries and with a very quick and easy production process.”

Further Development with Northeastern’s CRI

The team continues to work on development and securing funding. As part of this work, they’ve partnered with the CRI for support.

“The CRI has a vision, and they’re great at supporting and building to that,” Cassella says. “The CRI has supported innovation in a way that very few universities do.”

Too much food is lost due to faulty or unreliable sensors, and the price of those losses can sometimes be immeasurable, especially if the food was going someplace that direly needed it.

“Climate change is going to result in a reduction in food in many places around the world, and this can help get rid of the massive amounts of food waste, you can help support future generations without causing too much disruption,” Cassella says.

The Italian Embassy to the U.S. recently nominated Cassella for an award that recognizes Italian citizens in the U.S. that have made considerable strides in research for food equity and sustainability.

Furthermore, the communication technology used in this system has applications outside food monitoring systems, such as an alternative to GPS navigation in areas where GPS signals are difficult to receive.

Learn more about this research and other innovations from the Microsystems Radio Frequency Laboratory.

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