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Syngenta Looks to Sensors to Boost Food and Biofuel Production

The global agriscience company is working with the University of Manchester to develop ways to use RFID and wireless sensors to improve crops, reduce fertilizer and water usage, and minimize waste.
By Claire Swedberg
Sep 24, 2009Global agriscience firm Syngenta is partnering with the University of Manchester on a British project with global objectives to develop a series of four platforms on which to build wireless sensor technology, in order to improve the way food and biofuel crops are grown, stored and transported. For one of those platforms—the supply chain—the project's participants are currently in the initial stages of developing a system combining sensors and passive RFID tags. It's all part of an effort to reduce food waste and improve crop production in a variety of climates, the partners report.

With funding from a multitude of companies and government agencies, the group—under the umbrella of the Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre (UIC)—is completing the proof-of-concept phase for the use of technology to improve the way the food supply chain is managed.

According to Bruce Grieve, director of the Syngenta Sensors UIC, the research is the result of efforts by Syngenta to employ technology to boost crop production and reduce waste in a changing world in which water scarcity, climate change, population growth and the high-protein diet of many people worldwide is affecting what farmers plant, and how effectively they grow it. "We've created a group to generate technologies," he says, with plans to make them marketable within two to five years.

Early conceptual thinking for the project was undertaken when Grieve was employed at Syngenta, in 2005 and 2006. At that time, he says, Grieve worked with the company's business managers to generate ideas for utilizing sensors and diagnostic systems within agribusiness. He took a position as director of the UIC in January 2007, he notes, and the group "managed to start recruiting Ph.D.s as research associates in the third quarter of that year."

For the supply chain platform, the group is studying a sensor-based system that would employ passive 13.56 MHz RFID tags to transmit sensor data to a reader. In this way, the food industry could track the conditions of perishable goods from the field to the retail store, as well as better manage expiration dates and reduce the spoilage of produce that spent too much time in the supply chain, or was stored or transported under improper conditions. The aim is not just to tag, Grieve says, but also to record and then study the time-versus-temperature "stress profiles." In other words, he explains, the goal is to gain visibility into which kinds of conditions lead to shorter expiration dates, and when expiration dates are being inappropriately assigned (such as setting the expiration point sooner than it should be, thereby leading to the goods' premature disposal).

The group is presently focused on studying sensor technology only, and will later select an RFID vendor to assist with the project's transmission component. "Initially," Grieve states, "the platform is a 13.56 MHz tag, but this could be an alternate frequency, depending upon the choice of the RFID partner." The group expects the sensor network it is developing to use RFID to transmit data regarding temperature, humidity and the presence of ethylene gas (an indicator of ripeness) from the field to a store's stock room.

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