An organic spray-on coating could make produce last longer—benefitting growers, consumers, and making it easier to get fresh food to people around the world. That’s the idea behind aPEEL Technology. James Rogers, a materials science doctoral student at UC Santa Barbara, hatched the idea. He says that the school’s proximity to massive strawberry farms, combined with his background, got him interested in finding out more.
Fruit and produce growers typically lose 20% of their crop to spoilage—even with sophisticated refrigeration techniques. "All fresh produce is seasonal and perishable," says Rogers. He also found out that strawberries were one of the top sellers in grocery stores, as well as one of the most perishable. So he started his materials work on them.
Together with a chemistry student, Zubin Kuvadia, Rogers created an organic preservative. It works like this: They take produce that’s not able to be sold, and extract specific molecules. Those molecules go into a water-based solution, and the next batch of produce is sprayed or dunked in the solution. As it dries, it coats with an ultra-thin barrier, which prevents water from getting out and oxygen from getting in, stopping spoilage in its tracks. Rogers says that the coating protects each piece of produce individually, so that one spoiled apple doesn’t ruin the batch.
The team is working to generalize the technology, creating different formulations of the spray for leafy greens, and different fruits and vegetables. Different types of produce—say, a tomato and a raspberry—have different surface chemistry, which require custom solutions. Still, the strategy of keeping water from getting out and oxygen from attacking in remains steady. Rogers says he’ll be working on the problem of organic preservatives full-time when he finishes his studies later this year.
Preservative coatings aren’t new. Since the middle ages, people having been laying down coverings to keep their food from rotting. Back then, it was beeswax, but these days many preservatives are sophisticated molecules created by food scientists. Rogers says his company can bring materials science knowledge to the problem of food spoilage. The company won $10,000 in a new venture contest at UC Santa Barbara last month.
In addition, Rogers says that the coatings could be useful to the developing world. "Because we’re drawing from molecules that exist within produce themselves, this is a low-cost process that could have enormous applications in the developing world. I’d really like to see the business go into the humanitarian realm."