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UC Davis Winery Tracks Fermentation Via RFID Sensors

The system allows the school's new facility to track the sugar content and temperatures of its wine within each of its 152 fermenting vats, putting an end to manual measurements.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 24, 2010After completing the fermentation process for this year's fall wine-grape crop, the teaching and research winery at the University of California, Davis, reports that an RFID sensor system used on several dozen fermenters to measure temperature and sugar content of its wine mixes saved manual labor and provided more data about the fermenting wine than most wineries can typically gather. Next year, says Roger Boulton, a UC Davis professor who studies the chemical and biochemical engineering aspects of winemaking, the winery intends to deploy the system on all of its 152 fermenting vats.

With the data from the system, Boulton says, the winery expects to conduct testing not previously possible. Each grape mix can vary according to the type of grape used, the environmental factors in effect while the fruit was growing, and the vineyard's location. The only way to test the different performances of various types of grapes, he explains, is to track the fermenting conditions. With a manual method of tracking fermentation, this had not been possible, but with the RFID sensor system, provided by San Jose firm Cypress Semiconductor, researchers will now have information regarding the mix's condition, taken every five minutes.

UC Davis' new winery has already installed RFID sensors on several dozen of its 152 fermentation vats.

The newly built winery is designed for student research regarding wine engineering. Each of its 152 fermenters can hold a different grape mix, to create a different wine. The fermenting process, which occurs during the first few weeks of wine production, requires monitoring of the mix's sugar content and temperature. These levels are usually monitored manually, but in large facilities, such as that at UC Davis, gaining regular measurements of sugar content and temperature at each vat is impossible without a large staff. The manual method requires removing a lid to access the mix for measuring, which subjects the mix to potential temperature changes, oxidation and contamination. Because the researchers plan to study many different factors involved in the making of wine, based on the grape's type and growing conditions, the winery needs to collect data frequently, in order to measure the fermentation process within each vat.

While designing the new winery, Boulton searched for a wireless monitoring system and came upon a solution that Cypress designed to track wine conditions using RFID (see Boutique Winery Believes RFID Offers a Barrelful of Benefits). Cypress' team of engineers developed a solution for Boulton that includes sugar and temperature sensors connected to RFID nodes that transmit sensor data to a reader (which the winery calls a hub), integrated in a dongle that plugs into a USB port on a laptop. In that way, he says, the laptop receives the data and forwards it to Sense and Control Dashboard software, also provided by Cypress, via a Wi-Fi connection.

The solution went live in September 2010, with the winery's first grape harvest, to track the conditions within 30 to 50 fermenters. The system consists of Brix sensors, used to determine the sugar content in wine. A 20-inch steel tube, containing the Brix and temperature sensors, is inserted into the vat, with the sensors wired to an electronic module mounted to the outside of the vat. The module receives the sensor measurements, displaying them on a small screen, and shares that data with an active RFID tag wired to it. The tag is connected to a power adapter plugged into an AC outlet, already installed for each fermenter's pump.

Every five minutes, the RFID tag emits a 2.4 GHz signal encoded with its own unique ID number, as well as sensor data. The tag, which employs a proprietary RF air interface, has a read range of up to 400 meters (1,312 feet) with a clear line of sight to a reader, or approximately 100 meters (328 feet) in the presence of large amounts of steel and liquid—as is the case in this application.

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