A digital twin for citrus fruits: Avatar against food waste

On the way from the place of production to the consumer’s plate, about a third of all food worldwide goes bad. One of the reasons is unfavorable storage conditions along production and supply chains, including sub-optimal storage at home. Researchers at Empa’s Biomimetical Membranes and Textiles laboratory in St. Gallen have been working for some time on digital solutions that can reduce this food waste. Now the team has teamed up with researchers from the University of Bern and the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa to develop digital twins of citrus fruits and published the results in the journal Eating nature.

Plate instead of trash can

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda include food security and sustainable agriculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also sees sustainable digital solutions and innovations as a means to achieve these goals. The team, led by Chandrima Shrivastava and Thijs Defraeye, now relies on digital information for the citrus virtual doppelganger, which they were able to determine through ‘upcycling’, ie upgrading data that was barely used. “Every container in the world is now equipped with one or more temperature sensors,” explains Empa’s Defraeye. Until now, however, the various information that is hidden in these measurement data has not yet been used.

By mathematically evaluating the physical processes, the team was able to use the datasets to track crucial traits of the fruit over time, revealing and even predicting quality loss and marketing problems. To do this, the researchers followed the temperature trend in 47 container loads of citrus fruits over the entire transport route and used computer simulations to determine the risk of associated damage, such as spoilage, moisture loss, cold damage, mold or desired changes such as death. of fruit fly larvae, in the digital twin.

The result was a wide range of transport conditions and associated quality losses. “In our research, half of all shipments were outside the optimal transport conditions,” says Defraeye. The consequences: spoilage, cold damage, spoiled goods. At the end of their 30-day journey, some of the remaining citrus fruits could only be kept for a few days.

Optimal conditions

However, the solution to the problem does not lie in cooling the food alone. Rather, a precise adjustment of the conditions of carriage in the form of a compromise is necessary. For example, if the lemon travels too cool, pests such as fruit flies or other quality defects will be kept at bay. On the other hand, the fruit is damaged by the cold, which can make it unmarketable.

Using digital twins, the team has now been able to determine optimal conditions in which relevant risks such as fly infestation, visual defects and cold damage are weighed against each other. Further developments are needed before the technology can be applied, but the goal is clear: along their production and supply chains, companies should be able to integrate the virtual fruits into their processes to optimize storage conditions in the field and reduce food losses.

Fruit spies on the way

Empa researchers are also working on biophysical twins of fruits and vegetables to reduce food waste. Here, the properties of the crops are perfectly simulated by polymer models. In addition, the biophysical twins are equipped with sensors that measure the temperature and moisture content as they occur on the skin and in the flesh of the real food. In this way, the “spy” among the products reports accurate data to optimize the conditions during storage and transport – unlike conventional measuring methods.

Recently, the researchers expanded the range of existing sensory fruits, apple and mango, to include potatoes and avocados in various sizes, and improved the materials and production process.

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