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Waste Not
‘Quantum Nose’ Could Be Key to Sniffing Out Food Waste

The University of Maryland’s NourishNet team has been awarded $5M from the NSF to develop its comprehensive, technology-based approach to tackling food waste and insecurity.

A multidisciplinary team led by the University of Maryland (UMD) has been awarded $5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop NourishNet: a comprehensive, technology-based approach to tackling food waste and insecurity featuring “Quantum Nose” — a portable and user-friendly food-quality sensor that can detect early-stage food spoilage, and FoodLoops — a real-time app to be developed to optimize surplus food distribution to food-insecure people.

The NSF Convergence Accelerator program advanced the UMD-led NourishNet team to Phase 2 of the Tackling Food Insecurity track (Track J) — after it won $750k in the proof-of-concept Phase 1.

Led by Stephanie Lansing — professor in UMD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources — the team has brought forward a tech-driven solution that will unite a network of producers, donors, distributors and those who are hungry to fill food pantries with fresh produce and reduce food waste.

Launched in 2019, the NSF Convergence Accelerator — a Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) program — builds upon NSF's investment in basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal and economic impact. The program's multidisciplinary teams use convergence research fundamentals and innovation processes to stimulate innovative idea-sharing and development of sustainable solutions.

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“We are so thrilled to receive Phase 2 funding from the Convergence Accelerator — which gives us the resources to create new connective tissue between consumers, producers, donors/distributors and institutions,” Lansing said. “This project has several ambitious goals; but our main focus is to deploy NourishNet on a national scale to increase food accessibility for all populations, and reduce spoilage to build a more sustainable and responsible food system.”

Food waste is a well-documented problem around the world, but Feeding America estimates 38 percent of all food in the US alone goes unsold or uneaten — translating to 149 billion meals heading to the landfill each year; and the USDA estimates 31 percent of that annual food loss is at the retail and consumer levels.

A number of platforms — including Flashfood and Too Good to Go — are working to divert some of the many tons of still-perfectly good food deemed unsellable from the broader distribution system to willing consumers, with varying degrees of success. But more, scalable solutions are needed to enable a holistic approach to tackling the issue.

In Phase 2 of the Convergence Accelerator, the NourishNet team plans to meet several key objectives — including direct sale and distribution of the toolbox, complete financial marketing and business development, and expanding consumer education within food pantries and national universities.

The first step is the Quantum Nose — an electronic sensor developed by Cheng Gong, a UMD assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and a Quantum Technology Center fellow, that can detect the spoilage rate of perishable food (It was recognized in 2022 as UMD’s Invention of the Year).

“These sensors are built based on atomically thin quantum materials, which are extremely sensitive to miniscule amount of influencing factors — including the gas molecules nearby emitted by spoiled food,” Gong explained. “Based on such information, we can evaluate the life span and freshness of food.”

The second step is building the FoodLoops app and platform — which will focus on engaging consumers, recovering and redistributing surplus food, and providing greenhouse gas emission data to government and institutions to allow for data-driven decision-making. For example, it will connect small farmers within the food ecosystem with nonprofits and their clients; people who need food can see a map with the pantries where they can search for produce they need. If those pantries don't carry those fruits or vegetables, they can be added to a wish list and the food pantry will be notified.

“Working on projects like this is rewarding, because of the direct impact that we can have in food-insecure communities that are oftentimes left out of decisions made around food distribution; as well as in supporting decision makers understand better the complexities around food access, food distribution and food recovery,” said Dr. Vanessa Frias-Martinez, an associate professor of information studies with an appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. She will work with food-recovery software company Chowmatch to develop and test the FoodLoops app developed by the NourishNet team.

Finally, in cases where the condition of the food doesn’t allow it to be distributed and eaten, composting and anaerobic-digestion systems will convert it into fertilizer and renewable energy. At the end of the process, app users can view how much greenhouse gas they kept out of the atmosphere through their decisions to donate recoverable food, or to send it for composting or digestion.

The three-year project’s initial area of focus will be English- and Spanish-speaking food-insecure individuals in Prince George’s County, Maryland — with the help of NourishNet’s first partner, the Prince George’s County Food Equity Council. The team will bring on additional new partners the LindaBen Foundation, SCS Engineers and Well Said Media.

"A collaborative approach between academic researchers, industry, government, nonprofits and other communities is important to optimize the production of food and connections between farmers and consumers, researchers and other stakeholders," said Douglas Maughan, head of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program. "A lot of great work was accomplished by all teams in Phase 1, but there is still more to be done. The teams selected for Phase 2 are expected to build innovative, tangible solutions and strong partnerships to address food scarcity, irrigation issues, supply chain inequalities and inefficiencies, and more."