The shell fish farmer’s laboratory

The biggest challenges to ensure food safety today and tomorrow is fighting the effects of climate change and reducing food waste.

One good example of how these two factors can negatively effect our food production can be found in the shellfish industry.  Indeed, Shellfish farmers today are faced with increased blooms of toxin producing algae caused by temperature and ecosystem changes in our coastal waters around the globe. As a result shellfish samples need to be send to laboratories to test for presence of these toxins.

This testing is done using sophisticated techniques. And results are often obtained days after the samples were originally collected.

This can lead to to late detection which gives risk of toxin containing shellfish being on the market. Thus increased risk of intoxication, economic loss due to product recalls and food waste due to the throwing away of an itere batch while much of it is most likely fine. Moreover farmers are not involved in the process which does not help at all to create awareness.

In  the foodsmartphone project we are working  on solutions to counter this situation that involve the use of a smartphone based device to detect food contaminants. 

More in particular, I am working on: Developing a Smartphone based device to let farmers test for these toxins themselves onsite

I am doing this because I believe smartphone technology has the potential to revolutionise sensing since:

  • It’s portability and will cut out transportation issues which helps safe time
  • It’s GPS and WIFI can pinpoint the problems location and quickly transfer the data to experts which helps to protect against fraud and ensures we know where the problem is not occuring (and thus prevent destruction of good food out of precautions).
  • Such a device can allow shellfish farmers to participate in making massive decisions to reduce waste and ensure safety which boosts awareness.
  • And finally: everyone already has a smartphone and knows how to use it.

Now let me explain the steps taken in the past 1.5 year and the steps planned for the future 1.5 year in my project.

Get an idea of what is out there already: I started out with reading a lot of literature regarding smartphone based sensing to get an idea regarding what is already out there. And I must say, smartphone sensing is very novel, but the research in the area is exploding! I found more then a 100 papers on use of smartphone based sensing! However, most of them are in the medical sector. This work, which is freely accessible at The smartphone’s guide to the Galaxy, helped me to get a better understanding regarding the state of the art.

Catalogue what is out there for food contaminant sensing. Reading all that research made me realise how difficult it is to get a good overview of what is out there. Moreover, if it is already difficult for me as a researcher, how hard must it be for someone that is not trained in reading and understanding these academic works… Thus, in collaboration with Aris, Jack and Javier, I have created an online sensor platform that is designed to inform both the expert and the non-expert regarding the current possibilities. This platform includes almost 1000 sensors for the sensing of major food contaminants (all of which included in the foodsmartphone program). To enable easy access to this information we created a decision tree called TEST, that leads to user tailored information. I hope that this database will continue to grow and that it will be useful to academics and non-academics interested in pushing food contaminant testing to the limits!

Building a prototype sensor.While i was building the TEST platform I realised the enormous potential of electrochemical sensing for the creation of portable sensitive sensors with the ability to be quantitative. For this reason I wanted to get more training in that subject, regarding which i was quite unknowledgeable until that moment. For this reason I have joined the research group CSEM in switserland for a few months. It was a great and productive stay and led to the creation of quite a promising electrochemical sensor for Domoic acid. This work is not published yet so i cannot give tomany details, but i am sure it will be freely accessible for your inspection soon 🙂

Creating an universal smartphone colorimeter. This work, which I am working on now, if in tight collaboration with Jack, our IT guy. as a matter of fact the project is a great example of interdisciplinary work as it is blurring the lines between biology, IT and physics.  What we are doing is to try and understand exactly how colour quantification of a smartphone can be improved. How to get rid of differences created by varying ambient conditions (more or less sunlight). and how to make a system that would allow the prediction of both changes in colour intensity and colour change. (something which currently does not really exist). This project is very very ambitious and is pushing the limits of what can be done with smartphone pictures. However, we are getting promising results. In the near future we hope to finish this work and present to you a smartphone app that can quantify colour like never before :-0.

Finally: Creating the shellfish farmer’s laboratory: Once this final project regarding the creation of a smartphone colorimeter if finished I will turn to finishing up the final sensor for the shellfish farmer using all the knowledge that was gained along the way.

I hope that the final system will provide the shellfish farmer with the means to monitor toxin occurrence independently and help make the change to a world were food is no longer wasted.


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