Electrical engineering doctoral student Wen-Ding
“Eric” Huang wants to save you from buying food that’s
past its prime.
Eric earned a bachelor’s degree at Feng Chia
University, a highly-respected private institution in
Taiwan, but decided to attend UT Arlington for his
graduate studies. “I was interested in automatic
controls and learned that Dr. Frank Lewis was a leader
in this field,” he said. “I also learned that UT
Arlington had a strong faculty in microelectromechanical
devices, which I was also interested in.”
As it turned out, Eric ended up conducting research
in neither of these. Instead, he’s been working with Dr.
J.C. Chiao on various sensors. One of these is a
freshness sensor for foods.
“It came about in an odd way,” Eric said. “My father,
a university professor, has a discerning taste in
sausages. He can identify all sorts of flavors that
separate one type from another. When I mentioned I was
looking for a high-demand commercial application for
sensors, he suggested food.”
That led Eric to create a multisensory array on a
flexible substrate that can be packaged along with
various foods. The sensors are designed to detect
changes in pH – a measure of the amount of acid or
alkaline in a solution or substance.
“This is trickier than it sounds,” said Eric,
“because it can’t be applied the same way for every food
group or even different things within a group. For
instance, changes in pH levels in fish take place at
different rates, depending on the species. So, even
though they may have the same pH, fish in one package
could be fresh while another could be bad.”
Also, changes in pH aren’t always an indication that
something is bad. Anyone who is an aficionado of brewed
beverages can tell you that the fermentation process,
either properly or improperly applied, can affect a huge
change in flavor and appearance.
“The consumer may not ever be the one to pull a
spoiled product from the shelf. I’m working on a version
of the sensor that operates somewhat like an RFID chip
so the grocer can pass a transceiver across the package
and get a reading without looking at the sensor. Even if
the ‘sell by’ date hasn’t been reached, the product
could have gone bad because of improper shipping or
Eric has been perfecting his sensor array for three
years and has applied for a patent. You might be seeing
them in your local grocery within a couple of years.