Role of Photonics in Food Production

Outreach from the Pacific Dairy Industry

John Harvey is CEO of Southern Photonics, Auckland, New Zealand. He explains the role that photonics is playing in the dairy industry in New Zealand and specifically what kind of collaboration they are looking for from the Netherlands photonics ecosystem. Video made during the recent WTMF in Enschede.

John explains the unmet market need in the international animal breeding industry for an affordable and effective sperm sex sorting product. Engender Technologies Limited is a New Zealand company that has developed a technology to separate X- and Y-bearing bull sperm cells. This technology is expected to be low cost and cause minimal discernible damage to the cells. Sex sorting is expected to sustainably accelerate genetic gain and improve cost efficiencies in large animal reproduction.

Comments by Ivo Ploegsma, FoodTechBrainPort, Helmond:

We have seen here that Photonics has met agriculture, but it hasn't met food processing business yet. You need to know that The Netherlands is one of the leading suppliers of food processing machinery in the world. Tech for Agrifood is worth around 9 billion Euro per annum. We see many applications here in Brabant have been developed to help grow plants in some way. In other words, the focus is on applying photonics to things that are still living. But before we start eating an animal we need to kill it. How do we explain why photonics has so far only been focused on the arable side of things and not on the industrialized food processing industry? Part of the reason may be that the food-processing industry is wrapped up in a lot of secrecy around IP of certain processes. We propose match-making briefing(s) where the food-processing industry can understand how relevant photonics technologies can help grow their business.

Food Processing Needs Rep from a Poultry Machine supplier: “We note that the Photonics sector keeps talking about Food Safety as an important application. Of course, food safety applies to our sector of the industry. But it is simply a necessary investment. But the money is made in food grading not food safety. If photonics sensors can help us build faster, more accurate machines then immediately we see the relevance of light-enabled technologies. For instance, if you can detect the exact size of a feathered chicken during the defeathering process you can gain several grams in the overall meat yield. When you realize, that each production line is processing up to 15,000 birds an hour, even a difference of a few grams quickly adds up to serious money for their business. With current 3D cameras, the birds are so close together that all you see are the feathers.”

Most of our technology is for export

“With a growing world population, the need for an efficient, safe food processing industry is clear. Just as ASML is powering the chip-making industry, we’re providing machines for the food processing sector. 90 percent of what we do is export.”

5GPhotonics will herald a new era in Wireless Sensors

At Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), we think that light millimeter wave enabled support for robotics will be one of first large scale deployments for 5G. In the discussions in Europe around Industry 4.0, we see that engineers are looking at ways to streamline production facilities. Today, many sensors used to monitor a process are somehow read or actuated via fixed cables. That brings with it both mechanical constraints as well as inefficiencies in scalability and interoperability. If you can replace the cables with low latency, high capacity wireless sensors, then optimization is much faster and cheaper.

Especially in the food processing industry, sensors play a very important role in accurately measuring quantities and quality of ingredients. Food processing factories usually work for several clients, each of which comes to them for let’s say a batch of 50,000 bottles of a certain recipe. Once that is done, the faster the system can adjust to the needs of the next client, the greater throughput of the system. Photonics based 5G Wireless may offer faster connections (milliseconds) which over a production period can add up to considerable time savings.

You can also imagine that smart sensors can also learn the next assignment from a private network in the cloud. This means the robots don't have to be pre-programmed, but learn what they need to know at the moment they need to execute something. We envisage that such networks will operate in the 26-28 GHz range and we are teaming up with selected industrial partners to validate the infrastructure model. We're also talking to the High-Tech Systems Centre in Eindhoven as part of their Digital Food Processing Initiative. But you can imagine that self-learning robots could also be used in other parts of the high-tech industry where very precise repetition of a process is needed or where robots need to operate under hazardous conditions for humans.

An example

One concrete case which comes from the project Celta is the monitoring of moisture and water content in many parts of Spain. Without water many of the native plants and trees will eventually die. And for efficient irrigation, the moisture content needs to be monitored at various levels – the roots in the soil, on the surface, at various points in the tree top.

The TeraHertz technology turns out to be extremely sensitive and very versatile. We're looking at sensors in the handheld devices, or that can be mounted on a drone. The technology has evolved to the point that you can use photonics in transmitters and receivers. You can connect sensors together using the small optical patch cord you’d find in a datacentre, so small, lower cost, convenient. So we are looking in to how to exploit this idea further. To make a very compact portable terahertz sensors for moisture monitoring, but also certain proteins. We see that finding application both in food production but also on the field. You can also imagine sensors mounted on the tractor or perhaps an autonomous robot.

By capturing a lot of this data and storing it helps in forward planning, learning to give just the right amount of water at the point the plant really needs it. One of the advantages of terahertz sensors is that it is a contactless technology, which means it can achieve non-invasive measurement. Unlike X-rays, Terahertz is non-ionising radiation so it is completely safe on both the food and human body.

At Tu/e we are working on new devices systems incorporating new materials for implementing these type of compact sensor modules. Because the sensors are very good at detecting impurities, they may be of interest to the food processing industry. Fats and proteins have very specific spectral fingerprints. So, if you're measuring the quality of milk powder to be given to infants, then the terahertz sensors are excellent at spotting any unwanted impurities. There is no need to take samples and analyse them in the lab. We believe it is a very efficient real-time monitoring and analysis technology. And because it can detect very small toxin levels, the sensor can also show whether organic potatoes have really been grown without chemical treatments.

At TU/e we are currently at a stage of proof of principle and further subsystem development. We are also working with LuzWavelabs in Madrid who are busy with prototyping and investigating how to implement the system onto a single photonics chip. And this where the power of integration plays a crucial role.

Thiago Raddo, Eindhoven University of Technology, Department of Electrical Engineering,Electro-Optical Communication. Thiago is a R & D engineer and will represent the department in the meeting on the 24th.