Every year in Europe, 3.6 trillion litres of fresh water are used by the food processing industry, to remove dirt and contaminants from fresh food before it is sold to supermarkets, restaurants and wholesale markets. “I’m a Dutch guy and I never realised that we in the Netherlands could face water scarcity, until I saw with my own eyes the level of the lake by my office getting lower and lower,” says Hans Blaak, FOODWATERH2020 project coordinator. “Seeing that said enough, how big the problem in the world is, and that’s what we want to tackle.” To save water, many processing centres recycle the same water over a long period of time. Unfortunately, this allows fungal spores and bacteria to build up in the water. As well as posing a risk to human health, this leads to a loss of shelf life and contributes to the 88 million tonnes of food wasted in the EU every year. While many food processing centres use settling ponds where dirt and clay particles can be separated out before the water is reused, these ponds do not remove microbes, and require a large area of land. Blaak is director of the Dutch firm VAM WaterTech, which has spent the last 8 years developing compact technology that can clean water of dirt as well as the microbes that cause food spoilage. The key technology is a spectroscopic sensor developed by VAM WaterTech in collaboration with GooFra in the Netherlands. Spectroscopy is typically used to investigate the chemical and physical characteristics of an object. Using a machine learning technology, VAM WaterTech has been able to develop software that rapidly identifies the types and amounts of microbes present in water. “By measuring exactly the dirt inside, not just sand and clay particles but also the types of bacteria and fungi present, we know exactly what is coming in, and exactly the route it has to follow, and the time and intensity of treatment needed before the water can be fully clean,” explains Blaak. First, dirt and sand are separated out, and dried until this sediment ends up as solid bricks which can be transported back to farms or nurseries. The remaining water can then be treated with standard water sterilisation processes such as ozone as required. The development of this novel water treatment technology was supported by the EU Horizon 2020 programme. “This helped us to develop our business plan, and also work out how to translate the technology to the market,” says Blaak. The company now intends to apply for Phase 2 funding, which Blaak says will allow the company to expand and offer the technology at more competitive prices, opening up markets in developing countries. “Our target is to capture the fruit and vegetable processing market throughout the world, and reduce its water consumption by 95 %,” concludes Blaak.
FOODWATERH2020, water, food, dirt, fungi, bacteria, waste, processing, spectroscopy, machine learning