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IoT is about to tell you when your food is spoiled

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New paper-based sensors could enable labels to change color to indicate when food goes bad.

“It’s not getting any younger.”

In my house, that’s code for either eating or trashing something in the refrigerator that’s flirting with its “best-by” date — or just no longer looks as appetizing as it once did.

Sensors are the core of the Internet of Things

But what if Internet of Things (IoT) sensor technology could tell you whether that lasagna was still safe for dinner or whether it’s time to toss the hair-coloring product slowly drying out in the back of your medicine cabinet? That promise is what’s on the menu at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Washington, D.C., this week. So, what does the world’s largest scientific society, with more than 157,000 members, have to do with IoT?

Sensor technology is at the core of IoT, and the researchers aligned with the 140-year-old organization have developed a cheap, portable, paper-based sensor that could potentially do a lot more than tell users how old the food is. The idea is that the sensors could actually interact with the substance to tell whether or not it’s spoiled.
Silvana Andreescu, Ph.D., told, “My lab has built a versatile sensing platform that incorporates all the needed reagents for detection in a piece of paper. At the same time, it is adaptable to different targets, including food contaminants, antioxidants and free radicals that indicate spoilage.”

More than just spoiled leftovers

That means the technology could also be used to identify new medicinal plants without having to bring samples back to the lab, or to authenticate the provenance of expensive wines and teas.

According to Andreescu, the key is nanostructures that “catch and bind” with the compounds being tested for — in this case, the reactive oxygen species that products accumulate as they age and eventually spoil — changing color to indicate the results. Green for good to eat, for example, or red for send it to the dumpster.

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