Breakthrough Artificial Nose “Smells” Food Spoilage

How has the sense of smell entered the computer age?

We are all familiar with computerized video and audio components, and have grown used to touch screens that demonstrate tactile perception. Now C2Sense, a start-up company in Massachusetts, according to its Co-founder and CTO Jan Schnorr, has created a sensor chip with four sensing elements that can detect smells associated with food spoilage. This could be an important breakthrough in protecting public health.

Detecting Food Spoilage: Can one rotten apple really spoil the whole bunch?

It turns out that the adage really is true, at least when it comes to food. During the process of fruit ripening, the fruit releases a gas known as ethylene. When unripened or just-ripe fruit is exposed to ethylene, it ripens more quickly and itself gives off more ethylene, accelerating the ripening (and then spoiling) process of all adjacent fruit. Because the ripening/spoiling process is, in fact, contagious, the ability to detect the smell of ethylene is a great tool in preventing food borne illness.

How sensitive is C2Sense technology and how can it be put to practical use?

C2Sense’s technology can detect ethylene even in trace amounts, making it much more sensitive than the human nose. This translates into enabling food sellers to target food spoilage before it spreads. Such technology makes it possible for wholesalers to monitor crates of fruit for ethylene. Once ethylene is detected, contaminated containers can be moved away from uncontaminated crates, preventing spoilage from spreading through a warehouse.

On a more personal level, individual restaurateurs and grocers might soon be able to use a handheld device to pinpoint individual pieces of overripe fruit before they contaminate adjacent produce.

The Four Sensing Elements of C2Sense

C2Sense nasal sensor chips have four basic sensing elements which make them useful in detecting more than just ethylene from fruit ripening. The four elements are:

  • Ethylene for fruit freshness
  • Biogenic amines for fish/meat/poultry proteins
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Humidity

According to Schnorr, the goal of the company is to make the nasal sensor chips inexpensive enough to be placed into product packaging or imbedded into produce bags so that customers could scan these chips for freshness with their phones. This would prevent customers from purchasing spoiled food that has to be returned or thrown away and would help grocers keep tabs on the quality of their inventory and the reliability of their suppliers.

The Future Is Now

Futuristic as these nasal sensors may seem, we already use variations of such technologies in our homes in the form of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. While sensors with the ability to detect ethylene have been around for years, what Schnorr and his colleagues have done with C2Sense is to create sensors that are both affordable and able to detect low levels of the gas without setting off false-positive alarms.

How the Artificial Nose Knows

Technology, in the cases of C2Sense nasal chips, imitates nature. Whether we smell a pleasant aroma or a putrid odor, the scent comes to us through radiated particles that trigger chemical reactions in the cells of our nasal cavity. Depending of the particular reaction, these cells send appropriate signals to our brains. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors work in much the same way.

While still a PhD chemistry student at MIT, Schnorr discovered a new material, cheap to synthesize, that chemically reacts to ethylene (much the way the nasal cells respond to smells in the air). Through diligent research, the C2Sense team has been able to modify the material to detect other gases, at this point four on a single chip.

The human sense of smell provides pleasure and protection. While C2Sense chips may not provide much of the former, they provide a good deal of the latter.

Nasal sensor technology is wonderful, but it can never replace the intricacy and beauty of the human nose. Most of us are interested in keeping our noses not only functional, but as pleasing to look at as possible. If you are considering medically necessary or aesthetically desired nasal surgery, you should seek out an experienced and talented surgeon who specializes only in rhinoplasty.

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