Technology

Computer chip that senses smell could save money, reduce waste

A Massachusetts-based startup has given computers the sense to smell spoiling food. 

This Sept. 10, 2014 file photo shows bunches of Chiquita brand bananas for sale at a grocery store in Zelienople, Pa.
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  • Mike Tokars

Scientists have built computers that can play chess, drive a car, and even predict educational outcomes. And now, they've made one that can tell if your food is about to go bad.

A Massachusetts-based startup called C2Sense, using research conducted at MIT, has created what they call “disruptive gas sensing technologies” that will be used to sniff out rotting food, Wired reports.

Early detection of spoilage is critical to keeping other foods in a container from going bad. Take fruit for instance: as a piece of fruit ripens, it releases a gas called ethylene, which accelerates the ripening of nearby fruits, prompting them to release even more ethylene, quickly spoiling, as the saying goes, the whole barrel.

The same process occurs with amines released by bad meat. The ability to spot these chemicals before they take effect can reduce waste and save money; C2Sense co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Jan Schnorr told Wired.

Dr. Schnorr said C2Sense can detect ethylene in trace amounts too small for humans to smell, and it can also sense amines and two other unspecified gases. Schnorr told Wired.com C2Sense uses a new material that chemically reacts to ethylene as a resistor in a small electrical circuit. When ethylene levels rise, the material’s current decreases, triggering an alarm.

Some smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms work the same way: their sensors triggered by changes in electrical current brought on by chemical reactions caused by these unwanted chemicals and particulates.

In fact, C2Sense is not the first ethylene sensor, though, available options are costly and unreliable and implementation requires expertise, Schnorr noted in a 2013 grant application, submitted to the National Science Foundation which awarded him $145,500 to begin research the following year.

Shnorr told Wired that C2Sense has just received a $350,000 grant from Breakout Labs, a philanthropic organization created by Peter Thiel – a co-founder of Pay-Pal who was also an early investor in Facebook – that seeks to help scientists create startups. Shnorr says his company hopes to make sensor chips cheap enough to be built into food packaging that could be scanned with smartphones, which would provide users with a “freshness reading.”

In the grant application to NSF, Schnorr noted the “broader impact/commercial potential” of C2Sense “is the reduction of produce wasted by spoilage” that results in losses of approximately $20-billion annually.

“Worldwide we have about 1.3-billion tonnes of food-waste every year,” Schnorr says in a YouTube video, “and about 8 to 15-percent of that is due to spoilage. So it’s a huge problem.” Schnorr said people need to “become smarter about how we handle that.”

A recent study from the National Resources Defense Council found that 40-percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, which equates to throwing away $165 billion each year. The report noted “the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions.”