This Tiny Sensor Could Stop You From Eating Rotten Food

A wireless chip detects ethylene and amine emissions to determine an item’s freshness.
(Photo: Tim Platt/Getty Images)
Nov 6, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

A whiff of decaying meat or rotting fruit might be enough to make you turn up your nose at a refrigerator’s contents. Other times a simple sniff leaves you wondering—and might have you either chomping on rancid food or trashing expensive groceries. A burgeoning tech company hopes to take the guesswork out of smell tests with a simple sensor.

C2Sense, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, start-up, is working on a small chip that converts the smells that accompany ripening fruit and meat into electricity—and can alert the entire food supply chain about items that are about to turn.

The material of the wireless chip reacts to trace amounts of ethylene released from fruit and amine emitted from meat as they continue to lose freshness. A smartphone or control station can scan the chip to reveal the concentration of the released gas and determine whether the food item is fresh, about to spoil, or destined for the Dumpster.

Sensors able to identify ethylene have been around for decades, cofounder Jan Schnorr told Wired. But the C2Sense chip’s cheap components and ability to detect minute chemical traces could be a game changer for the food industry.

(Photo: Twitter)

The goal is to make the chips cheap enough that they can be mass-produced and incorporated into food packaging. A simple smartphone scan would alert shoppers and retailers about the food’s freshness.

RELATED: Thanks to This ‘Smart Cap,’ the Days of Guessing If Milk Is Sour Could Be Over

Ideally, the sensors will be used proactively to keep food out of the trash. Schnorr says the sensors could be valuable in all stages of the supply chain. Wholesalers could make smarter shipping decisions if they knew when food is expected to spoil, sending items near expiring to local shops instead of across the country. Grocers could stock their shelves accordingly, and consumers wouldn’t have to rely on their noses to tell them if their food is still edible.

About one-third of all food produced goes to waste, according to the USDA. That amounts to $165 billion worth of food wasted by Americans alone. Not only are there 795 million people who are food insecure across the globe, but much of the trashed food winds up in landfills, emitting harmful greenhouse gases.

Schnorr and his team have received $1.5 million in funding, according to The Boston Globe. They’ve already tested a prototype and hope to have a product on the market by 2017.