Integrated Photonics for Agrifood

Feeding the world’s future population – an estimated 10 billion people by 2050 –  requires a fundamental change in farming and food production practices. From field to the fork, sustainable farming is no longer an aspiration – it’s a necessity. 

Under the umbrella of ‘agrifood’; the agriculture, food retail, food processing, and food service markets combined amount to around $30 trillion per year. It’s an enormous industry facing significant challenges.

As demand for food steadily grows, the agrifood industry needs to evolve to prevent large sections of the global population from going hungry. And, as well as producing and preserving more food, the industry also has to address its environmental impact and cut carbon emissions. 

Here’s a breakdown of the main challenges and how integrated photonics technology can help.

The challenges for agrifood

Over the next 25 years, the agrifood industry faces two major challenges: ensuring global food production keeps up with demand, and reducing carbon emissions in the supply chain.

A study by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that around one-third of the food we produce globally is lost or wasted – about 1.3 billion tons of ‘edible’ parts. Food loss and waste are also one of the world’s major contributors to carbon emissions and are responsible for creating 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. 

To put that in context, if food loss and waste were a country, they’d be the third-biggest generator of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

Alongside these two challenges, the world’s food systems have other environmental impacts. There’s water scarcity due to agriculture, and the depletion of soil nutrients and fertility as a result of over-farming. Figures from the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) suggest 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by livestock, and that figure looks set to rise. 

It’s clear that something must be done now to mitigate worse problems in the future. The agrifood industry needs innovative solutions to make the transition to renewable energy sources, and new more sustainable ways of farming. That’s where integrated photonics – highly-precise sensing functionality delivered on a single low-power and miniaturized microchip – can put laboratory testing into the hands of farmers and other players in the food supply chain.

What are photonic microchips?

Photonic Integrated Circuits (PICs) combine two or more photonic functions in a single microchip to create faster and more energy-efficient devices. Harnessing the power of light, PICs are highly efficient at processing and transmitting data. They can also be integrated alongside traditional electronic chips.

Fabricated like semiconductors, PICs use photons instead of electrons to process and transmit data. Photonic integration enables complex optical functions to be delivered on a single microchip, which is easy to scale and relatively low-cost to produce. Miniaturization and low power consumption make PICs well-suited for handheld devices and optical sensing applications, particularly real-time remote sensing of crop and food composition. 

Read more: What is a Photonic Integrated Circuit?

Picture by MantiSpectra of a Photonic Integrated Circuit for AgriFood applications.

Applications in agrifood

The agrifood industry has a pressing need to improve crop yields and output whilst minimizing food losses and waste. It also needs to adopt sustainable farming practices that do not deplete Earth’s resources, reduce biodiversity, or generate carbon emissions. 

Precision agriculture sits front and center of this transformation. It uses sensors to enable highly precise and optimized growing and food distribution techniques. Precision agriculture has three core components: 

  1. Monitoring systems;
  2. Data modeling and algorithms;
  3. Technology that can perform the required actions (such as drones).

Better for the environment and ultimately more affordable, smaller and smarter connected devices have the potential to revolutionize farming practices and help to produce food more efficiently and economically.

Here are the main applications of PICs in precision agriculture:

  • Sensor fusion: Data from different sensors can be combined for more accurate detection and quantitative analysis. Take a tomato for example. One device could potentially detect multiple variables such as sugar and moisture content, defects, firmness, and insects.
  • Lidar: 3D mapping of landscapes and structures is one thing. Mapping orchards, soil conditions, and water flow is another. Lidar helps farmers precisely pinpoint where a problem lies, then make adjustments or intervene. It can also be used to map the precise location of farm machinery and livestock. Read more >
  • Near-infrared (NIR):  Already firmly established on the market, NIR allows both qualitative and quantitative analysis of the composition of nutrients in products. NIR testing is used by farmers to extract precise data about the composition of a cow’s milk at the point of milking. Read more (example) >
  • Raman spectroscopy: A more complex – and currently more expensive – technology that can carry out highly sensitive and specific analysis of chemicals. It could be used to determine growth conditions, and measure the chemical composition of plants. In livestock management, it could be used to monitor and control emissions, helping to both improve gas detection systems and monitor animal health.
MantiSpectra’s Spectrapod is a miniaturized near-infrared (NIR) spectrometer.

Next steps for photonic chips in agrifood

In order to feed every human on the planet in the next 25 years and beyond, we need to take action now. Precision agriculture is a huge opportunity to optimize yields, reduce waste, and ensure that consumers get great-tasting food products. However, it requires smart technology – Photonic Integrated Circuits – which can take monitoring and testing out of the laboratories onto the farms, and into the fields. 

A limited number of PICs platforms have multiple applications in agrifood. Cost-effective and easy to scale, this technology will allow the farmers of the future to closely monitor plants and livestock in order to optimize growing conditions and yield. It will also give food supply chains clear oversight of the food journey, ensuring peak conditions from field to fork, and ultimately eliminate food wastage. 

PhotonDelta partners in agrifood:

  • Ommatidia Lidar manufactures a 3D Light Field Sensor that combines flood illumination with single-photon sensitivity, resulting in unprecedented range and high resolution.
  • Scantinel Photonics has a long-range and reliable Lidar sensor which uses coherent FMCW ranging and solid-state scanning technology.
  • MantiSpectra offers a miniaturized spectral sensor solution for NIR analysis of soil, fruit, milk, and other food products.
  • Neuruno produces field-based organic substance sensing solutions measuring in the infrared spectrum. Applications include food safety, waste reduction, and quality control.
  • Deloq has a cost-effective, spectroscopic sensor that enables continuous monitoring of methane emissions. It measures ammonia emissions from livestock farms with an integrated photonics gas sensor.
  • Spectrik develops an integrated photonics gas sensor to measure ammonia emissions in agriculture.

Innovate with photonic chips for agrifood

Are you working on an application in which you can use photonics, but need support or specific know-how? Or do you want to develop a module and integrate photonics and electronics? Or do you need design or process support? Contact Photonic Integration Technology Centre (PITC), an organisation set up to help deal with challenges along the entire supply chain, or contact PhotonDelta.

See what integrated photonics can do for agrifood and download the roadmap below.