U.S.: Felix takes ethylene management from field to warehouse

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U.S.: Felix takes ethylene management from field to warehouse

The award-winning F-900 Ethylene Gas Analyzer is the brainchild of Washington-based Felix Instruments, a company that has been involved with food science applications in the fresh produce industry for half a century. At www.freshfruitportal.com, we delve into the details of the new portable machine that provides real-time ethylene measurements by using soon-to-be patented electrochemical sensor technology.

The scientists at Felix Instruments describe ethylene (C2H4) as a plant hormone that is produced when fruit ripens or when a plant is under stress. Measuring ethylene levels in fruit is a crucial part of the process when it comes to gauging an optimum time to harvest, as well as monitoring the continuing ethylene levels over the passage of time whilst fruit is picked, packed, stored and transported.

In short, having a precise measurement of ethylene at your fingertips could be the difference between a fruitful bounty and a part-spoiled crop for farmers and fruit producers the world over.

This methodology formed part of the thinking behind the invention of the F-900 Ethylene Gas Analyzer which has recently won ‘The Golden Gas Award’, an accolade dispensed by Gases & Instrumentation International Magazine.

No strangers to food science technology, Felix Instruments wanted to come up with a solution that could be used to measure ethylene levels in the field, in the lab, in a packhouse, storage room, during shipments or wherever.

"The idea for the F-900 had been percolating in the company for about three years and once we decided to create the analyzer it took a year to design with our engineering and production teams, then multiple field trials before it was ready," says general manager general manager Michael Larman.

Felix - F-900 with chamber

"During the research and development process we invented a new gas measurement technology (PolarCept), which we are in the process of patenting.

"Measuring ethylene makes it possible to pinpoint the best time to harvest fruit, better control how quickly it ripens during storage and shipping and prevent over-ripening during these stages. It measures the amount of ethylene gas present in air down to one part per billion."

Larman says the analyzer can be installed in a fixed location to measure room air, and this was often done in conjunction with connecting the device to various alarms or environmental control systems.

"It may also be used as a warehouse inspection device as the built-in batteries allow more than four hours on continuous operation," Larman says.

Perhaps the most innovative part of the F-900, apart from its portability, is the fact that is can be used on individual fruit directly in the field or orchard.

"To measure ethylene production of a single piece of fruit the user can place the fruit into a plexiglas chamber even while it is still attached to the tree and the F-900 will measure the ethylene being expressed by the individual fruit.

"Plant physiologists employ this mode because they can take multiple measurements over time on the same fruit.

"Once the fruits are harvested and in storage, managing ethylene becomes especially important as different kinds of fruits emit ethylene at different rates and others are highly sensitive to ethylene and will deteriorate quickly when it’s present."

He says this last point is particularly important when dealing with avocados, for example.

"Storing an ethylene-sensitive fruit such as avocados with an ethylene-emitting fruit such as apples will result in overripe avocados with little shelf-life. Multiply this by hundreds of warehouses and you will have a serious financial impact.

"Sometimes ethylene comes from other sources during the storage or shipping process. For instance, gas-powered forklifts used to transport containers of produce emit ethylene which can degrade the produce, reduce its flavor or destroy shelf-life.

"Fruits like kiwifruit, bananas and tomatoes are brought to a ripened state through the deliberate application of ethylene. Again, the amount of ethylene affects the produce with too much degrading the fruit and too little resulting in unripe produce. The F-900 brings precision to this process.

At the core of the F-900 is the PolarCept electrochemical sensor technology that is so sensitive it records real-time data, even registering extremely low levels.

"Until now the only highly-sensitive method for measuring ethylene has been to use a gas chromatograph, an expensive and unwieldy device that by necessity is used in laboratory settings.

"The F-900 employs an electrochemical process to achieve the same sensitivity, all with a far smaller, portable and less expensive device. Because it’s light and portable, it has far more application in field research as users can carry it easily into the field to do tests."

Felix Instruments explains two impacting trends occurring in the fresh produce industry right now that make the F-900 a particularly interesting, useful and topical product.

The first, it says, is that generally there is increased customer expectations when it comes to the ripeness of fruit. Consumers want their fruit to be at the perfect maturity, delicious and ready to eat as soon as possible or shortly after purchase.

Larman gives a good example.

"Consumers are unwilling to settle for imperfect fresh produce and the final point of sale like grocery storage rooms need every tool they can get to present a fresh, sellable product," he says.

"As an example of this trend, one recent inquiry we received was from a Las Vegas casino caterer who was looking for a technology to make sure that the fresh fruits allocated to the 'penthouse high rollers' not only looked perfect but were ideally ripened and tasted perfect."

The second is the increasing importance of branding. As more and more companies brand fruit products – think Wonderful™ Halos™ Mandarins, Cuties California Clementines® and more recently the Saboro fruit brand by Indian company Mahindra – comes the responsibility of offering a consistent high quality that becomes synonymous with the brand name; reliability is a key factor.

"Careful management at every stage of the fruit production process is critical to brand success and ethylene management is an important part of that process," Larman adds.



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