A consortium of British organisations representing all aspects of the top-fruit supply chain has received Government co-funding to develop Kent-based International Controlled Atmosphere's (ICA) potentially groundbreaking SafePod.
The consortium, led by ICA, includes the University of Greenwich's Natural Resources Institute in association with the Produce Quality Centre at East Malling Research, top-fruit grower AC Goatham & Son, Sainsbury's and top-fruit marketer Norman Collett.
It has been awarded funding from "the UK's innovation agency" Innovate UK for a three-year research project entitled "SafePod: new technology for intelligent control of fresh produce storage" due to start this autumn.
The project will see the full-scale trialling and further development of the SafePod system to help determine how the new technology can best be implemented to the benefit of the UK fresh-produce storage industry.
SafePod could, for example, offer many significant improvements to fruit storage, including increasing fruit firmness and storage life, reducing storage scald and reducing browning in Braeburn apples.
This is because SafePod regularly checks the condition of stored fruit by analysing samples of the fruit contained within a pod that sits inside the controlled atmosphere chamber. These samples are exposed to a more extreme storage regime than the produce in the rest of the store. This regime then provides a safety threshold for the stored fruit.
The "Dynamic CA" process could potentially fine-tune the current controlled atmosphere system, which sees each cultivar have its own generic storage programme. Although these programmes deliver good-quality produce at the end of the fruit storage period, they cannot take into account factors such as the natural variability of the growing season or orchard nutrition and location. Some tweaking is possible but, without precise analysis and control, optimal conditions are never established.
ICA technical director David Bishop said: "I am very pleased that Innovate UK has recognised the importance to the UK fruit-storage industry of understanding and implementing Dynamic CA to UK fruit and UK conditions.
"Their funding permits a full three-year scientific programme of research that just would not have been possible without their assistance."
SafePod How the technology works
Each SafePod holds around 60kg of fruit. It is exposed to the same storage conditions as the rest of the room but is isolated from the room's atmosphere at regular intervals.
The fruit inside is then tested for its respiratory quotient - carbon dioxide produced and oxygen consumed.
Growers can then use the test results to make the necessary small adjustments to the overall conditions of the store.
SafePod could potentially reduce growers' power consumption because, if respiration is reduced, the refrigeration and scrubbers can be run less frequently.