From rocket launchers to rocket salads, Geraint Morgan (based at The Open University) is always on the lookout for a challenge – and the SFN were happy to oblige!
Cancer detection, sports anti-doping, luxury fragrances, submarine air monitoring and space missions: Geraint’s work has embraced a staggering array of fields. The common thread linking them all is his expertise in Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS): a sophisticated technique for separating and identifying the different chemical compounds in samples. As Geraint explains; “Everything produces a unique smell- a distinct profile of volatile organic compounds”. Having trained as an analytical chemist, Geraint’s research career started by investigating how GC-MS ‘fingerprints’ of stable isotopes could model global sources of methane and their respective roles in climate change. He then turned his attention from Earth’s systems to more distant realms, joining the teams behind two space missions.
The first of these concerned the Rosetta Lander, Philae, and resulted in a miniature GC-MS system called Ptolemy which successfully analysed the chemical composition of the comet Philae landed on. Later, Geraint developed a similar system for the Mars Lander Beagle 2 to analyse rock samples for organic samples indicative of past life. Sadly, communication was lost with Beagle 2 after it landed, however the missions gave Geraint a suite of capabilities and a network of contacts ideal for problem solving back on Earth. “Having a planetary science background gives you a diverse skill set, besides the experience of working as part of a multidisciplinary team including chemists, physicists, mechanical and software engineers, geologists and microbiologists” he says. Looking for a new challenge, he attended an SFN workshop at Rothamsted Research recommended to him by Stephen Serjeant, the SFN Champion for STFC Technology. Here he found no end of potential avenues for his specialist expertise. “My first SFN workshop alone resulted in two successful projects, besides half a dozen potential new partnerships in a range of areas from chickens to blackfly larvae to Scotch whisky” he says.
Both these projects address one of the biggest challenges in the food retail sector: food waste. According to the UK waste advisory body WRAP, 1,200,000 tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables are needlessly wasted each year. At the workshop Geraint and his colleague Simon Sheridan met Hilary Rogers (Cardiff University) and in turn her colleague, Carsten Müller, who were working on reducing waste from bagged rocket salads. Using GC-MS technology, they had already demonstrated that cut leaves have a distinct molecular fingerprint that can be used to predict shelf life. However, this required expensive, bulky laboratory equipment: the challenge now was to develop a portable device that could be easily used throughout the value chain. Geraint and’s Simon work on the space missions proved ideal training: “The space community is very good at thinking outside the box and making things that are small, robust, built to survive and that don’t require a mains plug!” he says. Having demonstrated proof of principle for the device, they are now at the stage of considering applying for follow-on investment funding.
The second project concerns the avocado industry, growing at a phenomenal rate but with a high level of associated waste. “Although they may look fine on the surface, one in five avocados develops disorders in the flesh, for instance browning and/or fungal decay, causing most people to throw them straight into the bin” says Geraint. Working with Marcin Glowacz, (Natural Resources Institute/University of Greenwich) Geraint and his colleague Simona Nicoara are developing a system to non-invasively ‘sniff out’ these blemished beauties at importers and ripeners, i.e. before they are sent to the retailers. Currently they are trapping organic compounds released by avocados then analysing them with GC-MS to see if there is a distinct fingerprint that can differentiate browned specimens. As with the rocket salad, the challenge will then be to develop this into a tool that can be easily used by the supply chain. “Ultimately, we aim to enable importers in the UK to ensure that only good quality avocados enter the UK fresh produce market, while transferring the poor-quality fruit into other industries, so that they can be converted to other products, such as oil.”
Rather than slowing down, Geraint’s workload only seems to accelerate and expand into new fields. One of his latest projects is a medical diagnostic device to detect the bacteria that cause stomach cancer, one of the biggest killers in India. “It’s amazing to think that the same analysis methods we performed to look for signs of life on Mars are now being used to potentially save millions of lives here on Earth– a nice legacy from the mission”. Having made quite a leap from space missions, Geraint recognises the role that networks played in making this lateral move: “These networks such as the SFN function very well in bringing different people together so we can see how our technologies could potentially offer a new solution for the community. I get such a thrill from tailoring a new product to be exactly the right thing for the end user”. No doubt it won’t be long before he is ‘sniffing out’ the next challenge!
(With thanks to Caroline Wood, University of Sheffield author of this blog post)
In February we held two sandpit events focusing on 'Transforming Food Supply Chains for a Sustainable Future' and 'Measuring the Ground Truth'. These were attended by ~70 people from across the fields of Physics and AgriFood including attendees and speakers from DEFRA, STFC, BBSRC, GFS, InnovateUK, industry and academia. After pitches on proposed projects, and a democratic voting process by sandpit participants, two winning projects were selected for funding - 'Project APROV - Augmented Procurement Visibility - Developing the self organising capability of agricultural procurement systems' and 'Continuous Ammonia Monitoring for AGriculture - CAMAG'.
At around the same time we also launched our first call for collaborative scoping projects and have been delighted to be able to fund more than 20 projects, all of which are cross-council or between STFC and industry. You can find out more about all of these projects here. Examples include:
We'll have talks on all of our funded projects at our Annual Meeting on the 28th and 29th June so don't miss this chance to find out more and make the connections that could help you to be one of our next successful award winners. Registration is open now.
You can see how our projects fit across our themes in this updated version of our intersections diagram:
Following the buzzing SFN Launch meeting in June, we were delighted to announce the appointment of 6 SFN Champions who are now poised to engage with their respective communities and with each other to catalyse new interdisciplinary ideas.
The SFN is based around interactions between food challenges and STFC capabilities as follows:
The overall goal of the network is to fill the above intersections with active projects and help them to get going enough to continue beyond the network through other funding and/or industry. We are delighted to have found broad, well-connected, collegiate and dynamic experts on each of the 3 food and 3 STFC areas. They will reach out and enthuse to the communities in their areas about the potential of the network, brainstorm with each other about possible connections, and encourage new interactions.
Theme 1: Sustainable Food Production
This theme is focussed on developing food production systems that maintain healthy soils, reduce impact on the natural environment and provide reliable yield in the face of changing climate. SFN Champion for Sustainable Food Production, Simon Pearson, has a wealth of experience within the agri-food sector both in academia (Reading and Lincoln) and industry. His industry domain experience includes 8 years within the Marks and Spencer food group and a further 8 years running farming companies in the UK and Portugal. Simon now leads the Lincoln Institute of Agri Food Technology that conducts interdisciplinary and collaborative research with industry, key focus themes are the use of robotics in agri-food (soil sensing, crop picking and the use of autonomous vehicles), the impact of water on agricultural systems (diffuse pollution, salinisation) and the application of digital technology in agri food (IoT, system modelling and control). He is PI of an STFC Ag Tech China grant that is deploying novel sensor technology on robotic platforms to measure soil moisture. The data gathered will be used to support the development of radar based EO techniques to estimate soil moisture.
Simon is a passionate advocate for interdisciplinary research. The vast and complex food system is ultimately interdisciplinary and consumes biological, engineering, physical, social, digital, environmental and economic sciences. The challenges facing the food system are highly complex and in Simon’s view large scale and interdisciplinary approaches are needed to find solutions. The SFN now provides an ecosystem that encourages interdisciplinary research by matching industry, academia and funding mechanisms to drive sustainability in the food system.
Following discussions at the launch meeting he is currently particularly excited about STFC facilities can be deployed within the agri food domain, in particular the STFC capability in data science. There is no doubt that digital technologies (IoT, blockchain, digital connectivity and architectures) will drive productivity and system sustainability in the future, however, the data requirements and opportunity in the food system are so vast that new digital approaches will be required. Simon would like to hear from you about your ideas for possible projects.
Theme 2: Resilient Food Supply Chains
This theme goes from farm to fork, covering the monitoring, modelling and design of food supply chains to enhance resilience, environmental and social benefits, and public health. “Owing to global challenges such as climate change, growing population, dietary transitions and changing supply chain dynamics, it’s imperative to understand the potential risks within the food supply chains, and enhance the capabilities to analyse and mitigate them”, says Sonal Choudhary, SFN Champion for Resilient Food Supply Chains. In addition to building resilience, it is equally important to maximise value in supply chains through the use of disruptive technologies and advanced data sciences.
Fortified with strong educational and research backgrounds in plant sciences, environmental sciences and agri-food supply chains, Sonal is an ardent believer of multidisciplinary research and in it’s potential to combat the complex challenges thrown by the global food systems. She is focussed on building resilience through the development of unique taxonomies of vulnerabilities and mitigating capabilities within the food supply chains, which can be categorized to represent key actors from different tiers across the food supply network.
“I’m particularly enthusiastic about the potential of the STFC data science, computational facilities including e-infrastructure for supporting large-scale data analysis and technology for building resilient agri-food supply chain that could provide opportunities for value maximization for all the stakeholders”, says Sonal.
Sonal is currently working at Sheffield University Management School, where her research focuses on UK agri-food value chain risk analyses, sustainability performance of global food supply chains, and identifying inefficiencies within the supply chain and exploring value maximisation opportunities using continuous improvement cycle. Most recently, Sonal initiated a few projects co-designed with industrial partners that involves identifying and evaluating risks based resilience at production, processing and retail level.
She is particularly interested in researching how big data and disruptive technologies such as IoT and Blockchain can be used for value maximisation and building sustainable food systems. Sonal strongly believes in collaborative research and would like to invite interests for new research ideas and potential projects.
Theme 3: Improved Nutrition and Consumer Behaviours
This network extends all the way to investigating consumers’ dietary needs, food preferences and practices as well as focusing on questions of food supply, affordability and distribution (addressed in Themes 1 and 2), all critical to developing sustainable nutrition. The SFN Champion for Improved Nutrition and Consumer Behaviours, Christian Reynolds is enthusiastic about the using STFC facilities, data science, technology, modelling and computational approaches on the challenge changing consumer behavior to enhance nutrition and health whilst reducing waste and demands on land, energy and water.
Christian is currently working at the University of Sheffield, where his research is examining the economic and environmental impacts of food consumption; with focus upon the energy impacts of cooking, consumer food waste, and sustainable dietary shifts. He would love you to get in contact if you are interested in the scope of Theme 3.
Running across each of these food themes is existing STFC expertise that can address important research questions within and between the food themes, and catalyse new research activity:
Expertise A: STFC Data Science
Astronomers and particle physicists routinely analyse terabytes of data in large international collaborations which share code and frameworks. This necessitates the use of novel algorithms to sift and/or extract the key information about the Universe.
SFN Data Science Champion Seb Oliver is a Professor of astrophysics specialising in surveys of the sky with telescopes operating at a variety of wavelengths to understand galaxy evolution. He has a particularly interest in applying novel statistical techniques to these big data challenges. He has developed a strong track record in interdisciplinary research applying astronomical data analysis methods to other fields with grants and publications in biochemistry and medical areas, including MRC Discipline Hopping, STFC Challenge funding and a Wellcome Trust Seed award. He has been a member of the MRC Discipline Hopping panel. He currently leads a multi-institute centre for doctoral training in data science in the South East which will train around 60 PhD students.
Astronomers like Seb routinely analyse images of large fractions of the sky, taken in multiple wavebands and at a range of resolutions, e.g. to measure the age and chemical composition of stars and galaxies in the presence of confounding emission from the atmosphere. These techniques could be applied to remote sensing observations looking down on the earth, to identify crop species and stressors e.g. to better inform interventions such as pesticide application.
Source: Lucas Taylor for CERN http://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/628469
STFC also funds the UK particle physicists, who play important roles in analysis of particle collisions that happen 600 million times per second within the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, each often decaying to create new particles. The ~30Pb of data collected every year by these measurements must be combed through to find new physics, such as the Higgs boson. Building on the technology of the world wide web, invented at CERN in 1989, the CERN computing structure allows 8000 physicists near real-time access to LHC data.
Expertise B: STFC Technology
STFC researchers routinely push the boundaries of cutting edge technology for building space, CERN and STFC instrumentation e.g. precision engineering of lens systems to a fraction of the thickness of a human hair and hyperfast and/or sensitive detectors.
Stephen Serjeant is the STFC Food Network+ Technology Champion. He is the Open University’s Professor of Astronomy and specialises in extragalactic galaxy surveys, infrared astronomy and strong gravitational lensing. The Open University has a long history in space instrumentation, including CCDs, CMOS detectors, gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, and much else. Major mission instrument involvement and leadership includes Philae that landed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the Mars Curiosity rover, the first phase of the ExoMars mission, the Huygens lander on Titan, XMM-Newton, Chandra, Swift, GAIA, Chandrayaan-1 and 2, UKube-1, Euclid, AlSat-Nano, JUICE, Athena, SMILE and WFIRST. Stephen is the deputy UK Project Scientist for the proposed SPICA space telescope and works closely with instrumental colleagues in Euclid and other missions. Stephen is very keen to find ways to find ways to deploy STFC space technology expertise to new domains in food, particularly in addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
STFC has designed over 200 instruments for space missions. As explained by Stephen “These instruments have to be extremely robust to survive accelerations of several g during launch, and to survive the ultra-hard vacuum and harsh radiation environment of space. They also have to be extremely compact, light and low-power, as physical space, mass and electrical power are almost always at a premium in a spacecraft.”
Beagle-2 and Rosetta spacecraft’s lander Philae contained GC-MS instruments to measure the composition of the comet. Based on this technology the team developed a low mass, low power tuberculosis detection GC-MS for use in the developing world. There are many ways this technology could be applied to food research, for example by detecting moisture damage to cocoa beans, or levels of volatile molecules like pesticides.
Expertise C: STFC Facilities
The Science and Technology Facilities Council operates and provides access to world-class large-scale research facilities and manages the UK access to large-scale facilities in other countries. These facilities underpin UK scientific research across all areas and include ISIS (the UK’s neutron and muon source), Diamond Light Source Ltd. (the UK’s synchrotron facility), and the Central Laser Facility (CLF) as well as high-performance computing and modelling (http://www.stfc.ac.uk/funding/access-to-facilities/)
Sarah Rogers is the STFC Food Network+ Facilities Champion. She is also the small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) team leader at ISIS and the instrument responsible for the world-class SANS beamline Sans2d. She has been a SAS facilities scientist since 2006: firstly, as a junior beamline scientist at Diamond Light Source Ltd. and then joining the ISIS SANS team in 2008. Sarah’s expertise include using SAS to study multicomponent colloidal systems and performing in-situ measurements (including mixing and flow, heating/cooling and pressurizing) both of which are very relevant to food science. Sarah works closely with the Industrial Liaison Team at ISIS and Industrial Users are regular visitors to the SANS beamlines at ISIS. Sarah is always keen to grow the user base of all the STFC facilities and believes that certain areas of food science could really benefit from becoming part of that.
As explained by Sarah: “The CLF provides high power lasers which can be used to study the movement of individual molecules in living plant cells to be observed in real time - this information could hold the key to making crops more disease-resistant.”
X-rays (left) and neutrons (right) can provide very different views to the inside of living organisms. Here a classical X-ray image of a hand shows how the X-rays highlight the metallic elements in a sample whereas the neutron image shows how the neutrons pass through the lead casket containing a rose but highlight the lighter elements (carbon and hydrogen) within the flower.
“Both ISIS and Diamond can be used to study particle sizes and aggregation in food samples without the need for any special sample preparation (such as drying). The samples can also be modified (heated, mixed, pressurised etc) in-situ which allows users to see how the structures within their samples change in real time. The complementarity of neutrons and X-rays allows scientists to gain a very detailed picture of the materials being studied.” said Sarah.
Astro, particle and nuclear physicists set to tackle global food challenges
The STFC Food Network+ (SFN) launches today, bringing together hundreds of people to bring new capabilities to bear on the challenges of providing a safe, sustainable, nutritious and affordable supply of food for all. The launch is marked by a meeting today and tomorrow in Manchester. The SFN will catalyse and fund collaborations between food researchers and research and facilities funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
“Food contributes over 20% of greenhouse gas emissions and will likely be the main way most people experience climate change” says Prof. Katherine Denby, of the University of York and SFN co-lead, “We need to produce safe and nutritious food in a sustainable way without depleting natural resources, and ensure the accessibility and resilience of food supply. The UK’s STFC can play a major role in helping to address these challenges, by bringing access and expertise in the UK’s biggest facilities as well as big data and precision instrumentation expertise from fundamental research in astro, particle and nuclear physics.”
Prof. Sarah Bridle, of the University of Manchester and lead of the SFN, is optimistic about the potential for STFC researchers to contribute to solving food challenges “For example, in my astronomy research I analyse images of galaxies from multiple observations of large areas of sky taken at different light wavelengths from optical through to infra-red. I’m now using the same tools to cut out observations of fields of wheat and look for signs of weed infestation.”
STFC is always looking to explore the existing and potential capability of the whole STFC research community in food research, with the aim of broadening the impact of STFC’s science and technology into areas that are strategically important to the UK. STFC is able to contribute key capabilities in a number of important areas including in high performance computing, in particular in modelling and optimising large data sets; utilising our major facilities that include the UK’s key ISIS Neutron and Muon Facility, the Central Laser Facility and access to Diamond Light Source Ltd. These facilities offer researchers the ability to research processes and materials in detail. STFC also has access to robotics and autonomous systems.
An editorial piece in Physics World last year ended with “Particle theorists achieve many things, but tackling the world’s obesity crisis is not something they can ever hope to address’', but Bridle disagrees “I think we’re going to be surprised at the new connections that get made. One project to count pollinators in a field produces images of white dots moving across a dark background - show this to a particle physicist and they get excited about the potential to use tools they already developed to analyse particle tracks at CERN!”
Prof. Mark Reed of the University of Newcastle is an expert in trans-disciplinary research and research impact in food systems, and co-lead of the SFN “There definitely seems to be an appetite for these two communities to engage with each other, with over 600 responses to the pre-launch survey that ran last month. We set ourselves the target of getting 300 people on our mailing list by the end of the 3 year project, but there are already over 400 people signed up” says Reed.
The SFN Launch meeting today will present food challenges from agriculture, food supply and safety, through to consumer food waste. The STFC participants will showcase their capabilities today, culminating in a presentation of STFC-funded project Zooniverse which brings hundreds of thousands of people from around the world to assist professional researchers. Says Prof. Chris Lintott, Zooniverse PI and Co-founder. “I’m looking forward to understanding what bottlenecks occur in supplying the world with safe food, and how our community can help”.
The STFC Food Network+ runs for 3 years and will fund proof of concept studies, visits between researchers, small focussed meetings, and annual network meetings like the one today.
Notes to editors
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About The STFC Food Network+
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Food Network+ (SFN) aims to bring together STFC researchers and facilities with research and industry in the agri-food sector. The SFN will build an interdisciplinary community working to provide a sustainable, secure supply of safe, nutritious, and affordable high-quality food using less land, with reduced inputs, and in the context of global climate change and declining natural resources. The SFN will highlight and develop key opportunities for the STFC community to make a meaningful contribution to the food system - from sustainable intensification, through building resilience in supply chains to novel technologies to engage consumers and help change behaviour and improve nutrition.
The STFC Food Network+ is led by:
Sarah Bridle, Principal Investigator (University of Manchester) 07932 395 210
Alison Fletcher, Project Manager (University of Manchester)
Professor Katherine Denby, Co-Investigator (University of York)
Dr Kieran Flanagan, Co-Investigator (University of York)
Professor Bruce Grieve, Co-Investigator (University of York)
Professor Jason Halford, Co-Investigator (University of Liverpool)
Professor Lenny Koh, Co-Investigator (University of Sheffield)
Professor Mark Reed, Co-Investigator (Newcastle University)
Alastair Taylor, Steering Committee Chair (CEO at Institution of Agricultural Engineers)
About the Science and Technology Facilities Council
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.
STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including in the UK the ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR, and is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd. It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO). STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils. It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).