Editorial Feature

The World's First Edible Food Sensors

Swiss researchers developed the world's first edible sensors. The thin, digestible sensors can be attached to food, where they then wirelessly monitor its temperature to link our food to the Internet of Things (IoT).

The research from the team in Zurich built upon previously available biomaterials research, which explored using degradable rigid materials in objects, such as medical implants and wearable sensors.

The development of the new sensors was reported in the Advanced Functional Materials journal in 2017 by post-doctorate Giovanni Salvatore and his research team. According to the journal, the edible microsensors were made with a corn and potato starch-based polymer, which was mixed with magnesium, water-soluble silicon dioxide, and nitride; all of which are digestible by humans. It is a fully biodegradable piece of technology.

New Edible Microsensors

The sensor is ultra-thin at only 16 micrometers thick, which is more than six times smaller than a human hair (around 100 micrometers thick). This means that they can be easily implanted into food that can then be monitored and digested by humans without much intrusion.

"In preparation for transport to Europe, fish from Japan could be fitted with tiny temperature sensors," stated Salvatore, "allowing them to be continuously monitored to ensure they are kept at a cool enough temperature."

Image Credit: stockfour/Shutterstock

By using them in the food and beverage industry, consumers and providers will be able to continually test the temperature of food products; ensuring freshness is monitored and controlled.

Challenges Faced

Currently, the microsensors must be connected to a micro-battery, microprocessor and transmitter in order to work as needed. Although this is done with biodegradable cables, it is not an ideal situation. Therefore, the team is now furthering their research to examine and find ways of wirelessly powering and transmitting the data collected by the sensor. Salvatore explains that the team is currently looking into a “biocompatible energy source”.

Another challenge the sensors have to face is that they must be sturdy enough to withstand rough handling over long-distance transportation. Therefore, the sensors have to be strong as well as small. They also have to provide reliable electrical performance, while undergoing chemical degradation and mechanical deformation.

The most significant hurdle for this branch of materials research is the initial expense to create the sensor. According to a release by the research team, this type of biocompatible microsensor is very expensive and time-consuming to develop and therefore has made the product less marketable. It is believed that in the future, the price of labor and production will decrease to make the microsensor more viable in the industry.

Conclusion

Despite the many challenges, there has been and continues to be a lot of research into edible sensors. Earlier in 2018, a different team of researchers successfully developed an ingestible electronic capsule that is capable of sensing the levels of fermentation in the gut and detecting various gases. The capsule is larger than the Salvatore team's edible sensor, at 2.6 centimeters long, but is able to detect hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. It can also transmit these results every 5 minutes as it makes its way through the digestive tract. While still at the human trial stage, it is hoped that this sensor could someday aid medical professionals in diagnosing digestive problems.

Once the price of biosensors falls enough, they could be used virtually anywhere,” Salvatore explained, “Their use would not be limited to temperature measurement either: similar microsensors could be deployed to monitor pressure, gas build-up and UV exposure.

Works Cited

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