Andrew Larkins, chief technology officer at start-up Intrasight, which was formed a year ago, said he was close to developing a “proof-of-concept” system with several organisations, using infrared light in the terahertz (THz) range to scrutinise food.
Preliminary funding for the initiative came from the European Space Agency, with a further £100,000 worth of cash provided by the UK’s Technology Strategy Board as part of its Space Launchpad initiative.
The initiative is a competition rewarding innovative early stage companies with funding to help harness space technologies for their innovative designs.
“The Launchpad funding takes us further forward," said Larkins. "We are working potentially at being able to try to commercialise the technology or aspects of it in a relatively short timescale – 12–18 months if all went well.
‘Discussions with investors’
“We need to find matched funding from other sources and are in the early stages of discussions with investors.” Some of these could be in the food industry, he said.
Electromagnetic light waves in the THz range have also been employed by sensors to examine celestial bodies across vast distances of space, he said.
He called on food and drink manufacturers to contact him with the challenges they had with detecting food contaminants, so he could test the system, which could be trialled within six months.
“We are looking for people’s problems to be able to prove where it works. We are able to look for metals such as stainless steel - metal detectors don’t work so well on non-ferrous metals. The sensitivity of metal detectors does vary depending on the type of metal you are dealing with.”
Stainless steel needed to be present in larger lumps than steel to be detected, Larkins explained.
Realistic line speeds
After initial tests, the next stage would be developing a system that worked on a production line at realistic line speeds, he added.
He hoped the system would not only be used to highlight contaminants, but to feed back information on food quality and content to enhance properties such as shelf-life, moisture content and texture.
This would greatly broaden the capabilities of detection systems, said Larkins. “You don’t really use them for day-to-day feedback into food production processes. The system would also be able to tell you if you have the content you expect to be there and also to a degree a measure of the quantity.
Larkins said the work was part of a wider programme looking at applying a range of approaches for studying space to food and drink manufacturing.
Meantime, University College London, Cambridge and Leeds Universities have announced a £6.5M project to unlock the potential of the THz sensing and imaging systems, including for production control, security and medical systems.
- Food Manufacture is holding a food safety conference at the National Motorcycle Museum, close to Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre, on October 17. Speakers include FSA director of operations Andrew Rhodes, David Brackston, technical director of the British Retail Consortium, and Sue Davies, chief policy advisor at consumer group Which? For more information, click here.