Cold lightning keeps food fresh
A new technology being tested across a range of fruit and vegetable industries is keeping food mould-free, and has the potential to reduce waste and increase yield.
Zapping food with lightning may not sound like a worthwhile endeavour, but a team from Murdoch University is using a similar technique to keep produce fresher for longer.
Plant scientist Kirsty Bayliss is using cold lightning plasma technology to treat a variety of products, with the aim of reducing food waste and the use of chemicals in food production.
A simplistic description of the process is that the food is passed under a cold ‘flame’.
“Plasma is effectively all around us, it’s said to be the most abundant form of matter in the universe,” Dr Bayliss told Business News.
“When you see lightning during a storm, that’s plasma.”
She considers plasma treatment to have major applications for food, as it enables bacterial, fungal and viral contaminations to be destroyed.
Plasma treatment of food could result in a higher yield, greater revenue, and a chemical-free product that is more attractive to buyers.
For industries that rely on product freshness and purity for profit, Dr Bayliss believes this could have a major impact.
Grain is an example of contamination causing significant losses for companies.
“One of the big issues with export is there can’t be any insects,” Dr Bayliss said.
“Every time they find a live insect in grain that’s being loaded on the ship at Kwinana, they stop loading, and that can cost them $500,000 a week.”
The technology is being trialled through a number of local and national companies.
Dr Bayliss has worked extensively with strawberry and avocado growers, treating mould and extending shelf-life.
“We’ve had avocados that are three weeks after harvest and are still fresh,” she said.
The lack of chemicals was a major selling point for producers, she said, as avocadoes were routinely treated with fungicide.
A Donnybrook avocado company has committed to warehouse trials.
Berry suppliers have shown a high level of interest, after a series of recent recalls due to contamination with hepatitis A.
Major Australian supplier the Costa Group, which works with California-based berry business Driscoll’s, is in discussions to trial the technology.
Great Southern Truffles is a Perth-based company involved in trials.
Managing director Adam Wilson approached Dr Bayliss, wanting to invest in research around extending the shelf life of truffles.
While he believed techniques such as freezing or preserving could produce flavourful products, he said chefs would generally only buy fresh produce.
His company is also working with Curtin University to test freeze-drying processes on truffles.
“Truffles are a fungus, so that’s another complication,” he told Business News.
“Whereas a strawberry will bloom or go rotten from the outside, a truffle can rot from the inside.”
Mr Wilson said a major barrier to truffle testing was the limited season, running from June to September.
Once the season is over, laboratory tests cannot resume until the next year.
Despite the challenge, early trials have proven successful in reducing mould without having any negative impact on flavour or aroma.
Mr Wilson and Dr Bayliss both have high hopes for the potential to increase revenue, allow more options for chefs, extend truffle season, and allow for wider export.
“No one’s ever done what we’re doing in Australia, we’re pioneering,” Mr Wilson said.
Dr Bayliss said the next major step for the technology would be to create a company, and she would soon be looking to bring investors on board.
“Over the next 12 or so months as we spin out the company, we’re looking at raising a minimum of $500,000, which isn’t a huge amount really,” she said.
“That will allow us to do the testing on a commercial scale, and from there we can decide on the best pathway to commercialisation, and we’ll look at further capital raising after that.”
She has received encouraging feedback on the potential for commercialisation, which would require the technology to be scaled up significantly.
“It’s just an engineering issue to scale up, and we’ve had engineers say, ‘not a problem, how wide do you want it’?” she said.
“It’s actually very cheap to run – it has very low energy costs.
“We can produce it from the air, so you don’t need tanks of nitrogen or any other gasses, it’s chemical free, what more do you want.”