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Technical Insight

Magazine Feature
This article was originally featured in the edition:
Issue 2 2023

How integrated photonics can transform the agrifood industry


PhotonDelta and OnePlanet Research Center –have launched the ‘Integrated Photonics for Agrifood Roadmap,’ describing the future of sustainable food production, distribution using photonic microchip technology and the role of integrated photonics.


Feeding the world’s ever-growing population requires a fundamental transformation of farming and food production techniques. The UN estimates that by 2050 our planet will be home to 10 billion people. To keep up with demand, the agrifood industry not only needs to develop smart solutions for preventing global food shortages, it must also mitigate the environmental impact. Alongside those challenges, agriculture must remain a sustainable and commercially-viable enterprise for farmers.

Global challenges in agrifood
The global agriculture, food retail, food processing, and food service sectors have a combined total of $30 trillion per year. Under the banner of ‘agrifood’ they constitute an enormous global market facing two interconnected challenges: the elimination of food losses and wastage, and the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

A study by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that around one-third of the world’s food is lost or wasted – about 1.3 billion tons of ‘edible’ parts. At the same time, these food losses and waste are responsible for creating 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. To put that into context, if food loss and waste were a country, they’d be the third-biggest generator of GHG emissions in the world.

On top of that, the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) estimates that livestock are responsible for generating around 14.5% of global GHG emissions every year. Most prominent are ammonia and methane, closely followed by nitrogen dioxide and nitrous oxide. There are also related issues to consider, including water scarcity due to agriculture, and the depletion of soil nutrients and fertility through over-farming.

At the same time, the mounting costs associated with running a farm place a heavy financial burden on farmers. The increasing cost of fertilizer, rising energy prices, and the amount of herbicides and pesticides needed, push up production costs and pull down profitability for farmers under pressure.

This global picture reveals a clear and obvious need to improve crop yields and output whilst avoiding food losses and waste. What’s needed are sustainable farming practices that do not deplete the Earth’s resources or reduce biodiversity, and allow farmers to run a viable, profitable business.

A Photonic Integrated Circuit - Credits Bart van Overbeeke

Precise sensing technology
To meet the objectives of increasing crop yields, reducing food loss and waste, and minimizing the negative environmental impact of food production, new methods are needed. Enter precision agriculture as part of the answer. Precision agriculture uses sensing technologies to enable more precise and optimized growth conditions. Combined with robots and diagnostic software, it enables farmers to focus on smaller sections or even specific plants, instead of applying crop management to an entire field.

Monitoring and processing individual plants means that farmers can optimize plant growth and improve the quality and quantity of crop yields. As well as that, it enables farmers to have exact control over resources like fertilizer and plant hydration. That way, plants get precisely what they need for optimal growth, and precious resources – nutrients and water – are carefully conserved.

Precision agriculture has three core components: monitoring systems, data modeling and algorithms, and technology that can perform the required actions, such as drones. This points towards a future where large and powerful machinery – such as tractors – are increasingly enhanced with small, light, and cost-effective smart devices.

Better for the environment and ultimately more affordable, smaller and smarter connected devices have the potential to revolutionize farming practices and help to produce food more efficiently and economically. The agricultural sector is already gearing up for a future where robots and smart sensing systems support crop production.

Today’s sensors are capable of taking a wide range of measurements including humidity, air pressure, chemical composition, and temperature. Smart sensing is a burgeoning market, with a growing number of applications within agrifood. It’s already found applications in areas such as livestock management, soil management, and fruit farming.

However, commercially-viable smart technology needs to be easy to understand and operate without the need for extensive technical training. It must also be robust enough for farmers to use in the field. To address these practical and technical challenges, precision agriculture needs sensing technology that is small, cost-effective, and scalable — so that it can be produced in high volumes and at low cost. [IMAGE: MantiSpectra's SpectraPod, a portable spectral sensor solution for the agrifood industry - Source MantiSpectra]

Integrated photonics – in the form of highly-precise sensing functionality delivered on a single low-power and miniaturized chip – can provide the sensing solutions needed by agrifood.

Applications for integrated photonics in agrifood
Taking analysis and testing out of the laboratory and putting it in the hands of farmers and food companies opens up a multitude of potential applications for a limited number of PIC platforms.

Near infrared
Near infrared (NIR) testing is already on the market. In dairy farming, NIR testing is used to extract precise data about the composition of a cow’s milk at the point of milking. This includes things like fat, protein, lactose, and temperature. For farmers, this means livestock can be sectioned off into different groups to make processing easier further down the milk production line.

NIR technology is also used to measure moisture and the composition of produce grown in greenhouses, such as tomatoes. Right now, very small multiband NIR sensors on a chip – measuring a few mm2 – have been developed. They allow both qualitative and quantitative analysis of the composition of nutrients in produce from tomatoes to coffee, and even the alcohol content in wine.

Raman spectroscopy
Raman spectroscopy is a complex and expensive sensing technology capable of delivering highly-sensitive and very specific chemical analysis, including biochemical markers, bacteria typing, pharmaceutical analysis, and food nutrient analysis. Potential applications vary, from in-line controls in food processing to online or offline analysis of plants.

This makes it ideal for use in special instruments to determine growth conditions, measuring the chemical composition of plants. It also has viable applications in livestock management to monitor and control emissions such as ammonia, methane, nitrogen dioxide, and nitrous oxide – helping to both improve gas detection systems and monitor animal health.

Photoacoustic spectroscopy
Photoacoustic spectroscopy is a laboratory technique. Laser pulses are fired at the sample at a chosen wavelength, creating local heating. The thermal expansion creates a pressure wave which can be measured as sound. Its useful spectral range varies from 200 nanometers to 10 microns.

In the future, this could be miniaturized on a microchip. Its sensitivity makes it well-suited to the detection of low concentrations of gasses. For example, photoacoustic spectroscopy can detect the ethylene emitted by bananas and other fruits when the fruit is ready to ripen.

​​Recent tests show that through relatively straightforward measures, farmers using real-time diagnostics can reduce emissions by up to 50%. This can make the difference between costly investments and reducing livestock to fulfill regulatory requirements.

Lidar adds enhanced functionality to sensor data. 3D mapping of landscapes and structures is one thing. Mapping orchards, soil conditions, and water flow is another. This would enable farmers to precisely pinpoint where a problem lies and make adjustments or take intervening action where needed. In combination with robots, it can also help to pick exactly the right produce.

Lidar is also useful for mapping the precise location of farm machinery and livestock. Firstly, to keep track of assets, and secondly for collision detection for automated and expensive equipment such as drones and robots.

Biochips incorporate a bioactive layer that’s sensitive to a single virus or bacteria. Extremely sensitive detection is possible using ring resonators or Mach-Zehnder interferometer chips. The active layer sits on top of a waveguide. Detection causes a wavelength shift in a resonator or interferometer.

This technology is already used in medical devices for cancer diagnosis and Covid testing. But what works in healthcare can also work for agriculture, wherever there is a need to measure biological compounds, such as pollution or mold. Results are fast – typically, within 10 to 20 minutes.

Terahertz spectroscopy
For a long time, it was complicated and expensive to create tunable sources and sensitive detectors for terahertz (THz) spectroscopy. That’s because it sits below the frequency of light and above the frequency of standard electronics. However, integrated photonics allows the mixing of two laser wavelengths with the differential signal output in the THz region. Whilst currently in the laboratory phase, it opens the door to small, affordable sensing systems for both moisture and specific chemical compounds.

Laser speckle imaging
Laser speckle imaging as a sensing technique uses the interference of a wide field coherent light source on a rough surface. When particles move during the illumination period, the intensity fluctuations can be detected with a photodetector or imaging device. This can be used to measure sap flow in a leaf and therefore helps to optimize plant growth

The future of food production

Existing methods of farming and food production will not be enough to sustain the global population of the future. Agrifood has no choice. It must transform to minimize losses and optimize food production processes and yields. At the same time, agrifood needs to adopt cleaner and greener solutions – reducing GHG emissions and supporting biodiversity – in order to conserve, sustain, and more evenly distribute the Earth’s natural resources.

Precision agriculture is a huge opportunity to optimize yields, reduce waste, and ensure that consumers get great-tasting food products. However, it requires smart technology which can take monitoring and testing out of the laboratories onto the farms, and into the fields. That’s where integrated photonics comes in.

Cost-effective and easy to scale, PICs will allow the farmers of the future to closely monitor plants and livestock in order to optimize growing conditions and yield. It will also give food supply chains clear oversight of the food journey, ensuring peak conditions from field to fork, and ultimately eliminating food wastage. As a result, consumers can look forward to food that is harvested at precisely the right moment, and transported in the optimum conditions to ensure freshness of flavor.

Investment in integrated photonics
The Netherlands Government has heavily invested in integrated photonics via the National Growth Fund (NGF). The industry has been allocated €470 million – together with €1.1 billion in public and private investments – over the next 6 years.

PhotonDelta is a public-private initiative and a world-leading hub for integrated photonics based in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. We’re a vibrant ecosystem of tech developers, investors, and users of photonic chips and products.

Our members research, design, develop, and manufacture solutions for a better future in agrifood and other industries. Here are some of the companies already developing agrifood applications within the PhotonDelta ecosystem:

  • MantiSpectra is one of the most mature in this sector, offering a miniaturized spectral sensor solution for NIR analysis of soil, fruit, milk, and other food products.
  • Spectrik is gaining attention for developing an integrated photonics gas sensor to measure ammonia emissions in agriculture.
  • Ommatidia Lidar manufactures a 3D Light Field Sensor that combines flood illumination with single-photon sensitivity, resulting in unprecedented range and high resolution. It’s active in a range of markets including engineering, metrology, and space.
  • Scantinel Photonics has a long-range and reliable Lidar sensor which uses coherent FMCW ranging and solid-state scanning technology for applications in fully autonomous driving vehicles.
  • Neuruno produces field-based organic substance sensing solutions measuring in the infrared spectrum. Applications include food safety, waste reduction, and quality control.
  • Deloq has a cost-effective, spectroscopic sensor that enables continuous monitoring of methane emissions. It measures ammonia emissions from livestock farms with an integrated photonics gas sensor.

The full ‘Integrated Photonics for Agrifood Roadmap’ is available to download from our website. Visit https://www.photondelta.com/downloads/ for more information.

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