Steady food supply is the cornerstone of civilization. Most folks don’t consider food storage challenges beyond the confines of their own kitchen appliance. But imagine: what happens in a “bin” lies at the heart of our ability to feed the world. Of the 50,000 edible plants on Earth, three plants – rice, maize, and wheat – provide 60% of the world’s energy intake. To flatten the peaks and valleys of production, storage is required. Storage bins containing all our producer investments in management, seed, fertilizer, land costs, and machinery, must attempt to keep moisture and vermin away. Crop storage loss estimates range from 1-2% in the developed world, up to 50% in the developing world. Minimizing storage losses is therefore a significant economic issue for producers, and a significant social issue for societies.
Current stored grain monitoring systems face a number of challenges. These systems consist of a series of cables hung from the roof of the bin, with each cable containing temperature (or occasionally moisture) sensors at four foot intervals. The “view” of these cables is very coarse. Larger bins require dozens of cables to effectively monitored. Temperature sensors (the most common) only detect problems after the grain has spoiled; the process of grain spoiling involves higher moisture content, followed by grain sprouting, followed by a temperature increase. The cables also regularly break and create maintenance issues, and require manufacturers to strengthen the bin roof.
A more innovative solution could have significant market potential. Monitoring systems are installed in roughly 50% of grain bins sold by western Canada grain bin companies, with a roughly $30 million annual market. Taken in a larger context, Canada has an amenable storage climate, and the global market for monitoring solutions is a vast one. This is an excellent opportunity for the country.
Manitoba-based 151Research Inc. is pioneering a cable-disruptive monitoring solution involving the use of radio-frequency (RF) imaging technology to create moisture maps of stored grain. Moisture mapping indicates both the risk of spoilage and the commercial quality of the grain. Working with Professor Joe LoVetri’s Electromagnetic Imaging Lab in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Manitoba, 151Research has developed a proof of concept monitoring system that provides a full 3D image of the moisture content inside the grain bin, at high resolution. Advantages of this approach include the ability to:
Detect the pre-conditions of spoiled grain (i.e. exact moisture content).
Remove cable-based maintenance issues.
Determine exact moisture content and obtain better pricing for the producer.
“See” grain bin content without having to physically enter the bin (which can be very dangerous).
Monitor and optimize grain drying in the bin (by monitoring moisture content).
The concept has been proven on small table-top systems and in a 20 tonne hopper-style bin at the University of Manitoba’s stored grain research lab. 151Research is now pursuing a path to commercialization and is seeking grain company investment.
This is a great example of Canadian innovators finding a technological solution to an age-old problem: feeding the world in the most sustainable way possible.