Detecting bacteria with smart sensors

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12 July 2021

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How do you prevent products from being taken off the shelves in the future because they are contaminated with bacteria? With a sensor! This allows food products to be tested for possible bacterial contamination during the production process in a cheap and fast way. Researcher Rocio Arreguin Campos from Maastricht University is working on the design and testing of this smart sensor.

Why is this research important?

Food safety is a hot topic and is always under a magnifying glass. Nothing is as sensitive as our daily food. All the more reason, therefore, to minimize risks and detect possible contaminants in food as quickly as possible. With this new technology we can detect harmful bacteria such as E.coli on the spot, in real time. This is good for food processors, consumers and society.

How do the tests take place now?

Companies in the food processing industry now send samples to specialized laboratories at fixed times. With this method, it sometimes takes up to a week to reach a final analysis. It is therefore possible that certain contaminants are not detected in time, resulting in a high risk of a recall, with consequent economic loss and damage to image.

That can be done faster and cheaper?

The demand for a system that can already detect bacteria during the production process is enormous. Maastricht University, KU Leuven and Hasselt University have developed a sensor technology that can do this! Through the agrEUfood project we want to further develop this new technology together with companies and - of course - test it in practice: turning applicable science into a useful product. This sensor technology not only offers economic opportunities for companies working with food products. Because bacteria can be detected more quickly, it also provides added value for public health.

How does that sensor actually work?

We use a so-called biomimetic sensor. This sensor uses a synthetic substance to detect another substance, in this case a bacterium. By integrating this sensor into a machine where a fresh product is made, any contamination can be detected and resolved very quickly.

What kind of research are you doing??

This new sensor technology works on the basis of synthetic receptors and thermal resistance measurements that allow us to quickly identify bacterial contaminants. My research from the Faculty of Science and Engineering consists of chemically designing these receptors for the sensor and testing the device in the lab.

How does the research look like?

We combine knowledge from the different disciplines in this research. In the chemistry lab I work on the chemical design of the sensor, the receptors, so that it can actually recognize and detect the bacteria. We are then investigating whether the sensor actually works in the machine. It is of course essential that it continues to measure well under different conditions. We find out by doing lots of tests to see how the sensor reacts to, for example, food, water and heat. The final step is measuring the food samples: does the sensor measure what it needs to measure?

And, are there already exciting results?

The sensor has already been tested in samples in the laboratory. At the same time, all the components needed to implement the sensor in a vending machine are being developed. The last part is testing the sensor in the vending machine. That is where we are now. For this we are working with the Belgian startup Alberts Smoothies. They have developed the world's first smoothie vending machine. A vending machine that allows you to make a fresh smoothie from the fruits and vegetables of your choice at the push of a button. The startup already uses robotics, nutrition and artificial intelligence to serve these fresh, personalized smoothies. But with this smart sensor, it is possible to fully automate the machine.

About AgrEUfood

The AgrEUfood project receives a contribution from the Interreg program Flanders-Netherlands to address problems in border regions and promote cross-border cooperation within Europe. For more information about this project, please visit