Over ten percent of the US population is expected to have food-related allergies. As a result, food producers need to work hard to ensure that their foods are safe and allergen-free. With over 800,000 kilograms of food available per day in North America alone, one can imagine how challenging it must be to rapidly test and evaluate food products. Researchers at Iowa State University and Northwestern University have developed graphene-based electrochemical sensors to test allergens called histamines that cause severe allergies to seafood.
The sensors can be used on-site to detect harmful quantities of histamines in under an hour, compared to current techniques in the food industry that take several hours, and eliminate the need to pre-process samples and ship them to off-location labs for testing. The speed and efficacy of these sensors are based on two key components. First, graphene has excellent electrical and mechanical properties for use as a sensor, such as high electrical conductivity. Second, by using aerosol jet printing, researchers were able to test and explore several device designs to optimize sensor response for the given allergen. Aerosol jet printing is an additive manufacturing technique where a wide range of inks can be aerosolized and focused by a sheath of gas to deposit the ink on many types of surfaces. Unlike previous methods to construct graphene-based devices, aerosol jet printing can print many devices with small details.
Through this combination of material and process, the authors of this study propose that this sensor can be low-cost, high-throughput, and scalable to many other types of allergens in the food industry. It will be challenging, however, to determine whether sensors for other allergens can be aerosolized and printed and whether these sensors can be manufactured at the large scale necessary for the food industry. Nevertheless, with advances in both materials properties, such as graphene, and processing techniques, such as aerosol printing, we can have greater access to clean and safe food.
Managing Correspondent: Eesha Khare