A nose for potato diseases: TuberSense enters advanced testing phases

03-07-2023 | |
TuberSense system with rotten potatoes - Photo's:  B-hive Innovations
TuberSense system with rotten potatoes - Photo's: B-hive Innovations

B-hive Innovations, an innovative agri-tech business, has made significant progress in developing TuberSense, a root crop disease and defect monitoring system that aims to transform how potato growers anticipate and tackle issues before the crop’s quality and value are compromised.

This revolutionary project, led by Future Leaders Fellow Dr. Barbara Correia and supported by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), has now entered its advanced testing phases, offering promising solutions for potato growers worldwide. In collaboration with potato producer Branston Ltd and renowned research institutions such as UWE Bristol, the James Hutton Institute, and the University of Warwick, Dr. Correia’s team has successfully established the correlation between potato diseases and volatile compounds released by the tubers. Leveraging gas sensors developed by the University of Warwick, TuberSense employs volatile biomarkers to detect and identify crop diseases and defects that can jeopardize potato supply chains, including soft rot, dry rot, and black heart in potato tubers.

Dr. Correia emphasized the groundbreaking insights gained during the initial research phase, stating, “Our research has provided us with tremendous novel insights into the range of diseases and defects that can compromise the overall quality of the crop. Through gas sensing technologies, we have identified the diseases that are most distinguishable, paving the way for early detection and intervention.”

Three-quarters of the growers faced disease issues

To ensure optimal testing conditions, field trials have been conducted in collaboration with growers, alongside semi-controlled experiments utilizing industrial shipping containers. Furthermore, the team has extended their research to sweet potatoes, shipping a TuberSense system to a North American supplier to assess its compatibility with this crop. Given the increased susceptibility of sweet potatoes to diseases and defects, particularly during long shipping times, the potential impact on reducing crop wastage is significant.

In a 12-week Scaling the Edge project funded by UKRI, the research team engaged with growers to understand their specific needs. The results revealed that three-quarters of the growers faced disease and defect issues with their crops, underscoring the demand for an early detection gas sensing system.

Graphene-based sensors

Close-up of the TuberSense system.
Close-up of the TuberSense system.

With the completion of the first phase approaching, the team is now focusing on developing an improved gas sensor for the second iteration of TuberSense. Testing with upgraded units is scheduled to commence by the end of the year. Dr. Correia commented, “Our ongoing analysis has given us the confidence to trial a 2.0 iteration, which will provide even more accurate insights into disease and defect detection using volatile markers for gas sensing in stored crops.”

In their quest for continuous improvement, the research team is exploring collaborations with partners such as Altered Carbon, who specialize in graphene-based sensors. These partnerships aim to further enhance the sensitivity and performance of the TuberSense system, pushing the boundaries of disease and defect detection. Dr. Correia concluded, “Our ultimate goal is to produce commercial detection systems that address the specific needs of the industry. By leveraging detailed data analysis and continuously refining the underlying technology, we aim to offer growers and packers of root crops unprecedented insights and early detection capabilities.”

Geert Hekkert Chief editor of Future Farming