New graphene allergen sensor reduces downtime and safety risks in food manufacturing

The UK has some of the highest prevalence rates of allergic conditions in the world. It is estimated that 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children in the UK have some sort of food allergy – this equates to around two million people.

Often, trace quantities of allergens, such as milk, can be found in food processing plants at very low concentrations and can trigger an immune response in allergic individuals, ranging from hives to severe gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms, and, in serious cases, anaphylactic shock. As a result, where there is a possibility of cross contamination, food producers are obliged to label products or recall incorrectly-labelled products and refund customers, costing millions for businesses.

Today the effective management of allergens in manufacturing operations is a key concern for industry, and one that can prove very costly to UK businesses through increased downtime.

Such recalls are a clear public health concern, but, moreover, they pose a significant economic challenge for the UK’s manufacturing industry, requiring product retrieval, storage and destruction, and leading to unsaleable product, as well as potential legal costs and damage to brand reputation. This is a growing issue for businesses, principally due to the lack of monitoring systems capable of rapid and accurate measurement of allergen levels in foods. Currently, manufacturers must send off samples for testing, meaning production must be halted and increasing switchover times between products.

A recent Innovate UK project, delivered by NPL, Unilever, ProGnomics (a spin-out of Swansea University) and the University of Cambridge, has developed an in-situ graphene allergen sensor to solve this issue. This sensor will help ensure that milk allergens are removed after production, to ensure the safety of other products and help manufacturers become more productive and efficient.

This was achieved by exploiting the exceptional electronic properties and surface sensitivity of graphene, which allow it to work as an effective sensor. The detection mechanism works by using chemically-modified graphene that includes antibodies specific to the allergen being detected. The antibody on the sensor will bind with the antigen of the allergen present. This process results in the transfer of the electrical carriers between the biological molecule and graphene that increases the device resistance and gives a reading of the allergen level. This simple, yet effective, field setup is capable of detecting binding events down to parts-per-million level and doing so in real-time on the factory floor, providing a quick, comprehensive and accurate indication of even a small quantity of allergen residue in production plants.

By reducing cleaning times and waste, as well as energy and water consumption, the sensor could significantly increase manufacturing efficiency for food producers.

NPL provided unique access to state-of-the art facilities for the project, to monitor the microstructure and electrical properties of the various sensor prototypes to identify the industrial promise and effectiveness of them. The project has provided a real glimpse into the future and shows what could be possible with the development an easy-touse sensor capable of monitoring allergen levels. Chemical modification of graphene means that such a biosensor could be used to identify the presence of other allergens in food manufacturing in the future.

The sensor offers significant benefits to the manufacturing industry. By reducing cleaning times and waste, as well as energy and water consumption, the sensor could significantly increase manufacturing efficiency for food producers. What’s more, it will also improve process monitoring with specific in-situ measurement that will provide improved quality assurance, enabling potential issues to be predicted and rectified before they halt production or cause a safety risk for consumers.

Manufacturing is critical to the UK, accounting for 45% of our exports and employing 2.7 million people, with more in food and drink manufacturing than anywhere else. This importance will only increase as the country becomes independent of the EU, so
it is essential that our world-leading research in fields such as graphene is harnessed to protect and grow the productivity of this industry.

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