NATICK, Mass. -- Researchers at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, are working to make sure fresh produce isn't lost at sea.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are diet essentials, but keeping produce fresh can be particularly challenging aboard Navy aircraft carriers. Refrigeration helps prolong the shelf life of produce, but a technology was needed to help combat the effects of ethylene gas. Ethylene is a naturally occurring plant hormone that helps plants ripen but also leads to spoilage. Certain types of produce, such as bananas and apples, produce large amounts of ethylene and can accelerate the spoilage of nearby produce, as well. Even low levels of ethylene can destroy a produce shipment in less than a day, but reducing the presence of ethylene can extend shelf life by days and even weeks.

To help extend the shelf life of refrigerated produce aboard Navy aircraft carriers, researchers in NSRDEC's Combat Feeding Directorate, or CFD, partnered with Primaira of Woburn, Massachusetts, to scale up extended preservation technology originally developed under an Army Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, contract.

"The technology is based on ultraviolet, or UV, light," said Peter Lavigne, a chemical engineer on CFD's Equipment and Energy Technology Team, who has researched extended preservation technology since 2006. "It scrubs the air and eliminates the ethylene gas. Another strong benefit of UV light is its antimicrobial activity and associated ability to reduce mold growth and even inactivate spores that may be present in the air."

This Ethylene Control Device, or ECD, safely and rapidly oxidizes ethylene to carbon dioxide and water vapor. By continually removing ethylene, the device slows the spoiling process, keeping produce aboard ships fresher longer.

The ECD has been configured as a modular enhancement kit that is inserted into existing refrigerated containers aboard ships. With a small amount of electrical power, the ECD safely decomposes the volatile and microbial contaminants yet avoids the labor-intensive and material-handling challenges presented by traditional ethylene-control practices, which include blankets, filters and pellets that chemically bind or absorb ethylene and moisture. For a ship at sea for long periods, these practices have posed significant logistical burdens attributed to stocking, maintaining, and ultimately disposing of materials that are in some cases regulated as hazardous waste.

The ECD was specifically developed to avoid these challenges and provide an effective, compact, low-power, low-cost, and easy-to-maintain solution.

"You're reducing costs of losses by not having to throw it away," said Lavigne. "With this technology we see a marked reduction of browning, wilting, and mold growth."

"They don't have to replenish as often," said Lou Jamieson, a retired Navy master chief petty officer and a CFD Navy project officer on the Systems and Engineering Team. "So if you think about this in the case of a ship with a critical mission, it could be in one ocean and then might have to head full speed to another ocean. You may have to forgo your scheduled replenishment. So this technology can help in those types of situations."

"When they are deployed 30-plus days, the extended shelf life is critical," said Lavigne.
"Another major benefit of this technology insertion is a reduced workload for the warfighter," said Jamieson. "An annual bulb change-out is the only maintenance. It is mounted and then it just runs and they can forget about it."

The device has been installed on two Navy aircraft carriers and will ultimately be installed on all eleven in the fleet. CFD has teamed with Primaira to help Sailors properly install and operate the ECDs and will continue to monitor the performance and overall results achieved.

"What we are doing right now is an at-sea evaluation," Jamieson said. "It's currently deployed on one carrier and recently installed on another. Eventually, it will be installed on all the carriers in the Navy. From on-board data collection and observation of produce quality, we intend to determine actual mixed-load (assorted produce) life extension. How much less did they have to order during deployment (due to less spoilage)? How many times did they have to replenish?"

In addition to use on ships, the technology can also be inserted into refrigerated containers for use by the Army, other services, and even commercial refrigerated assets, ensuring the highest-quality fresh produce can be delivered to Soldiers operating in remote forward areas.

Improving quality of life for all service members motivates both men.

"That's why I'm here" said Lavigne. "It's incredibly rewarding to see our work making a difference for our military."

"As a retired Navy master chief petty officer, I'm really enjoying having an impact on all the warfighters and improving their quality of life," said Jamieson. "Our job is to lighten the workload for warfighters and to give them the best quality equipment and technology that we can. We're huge on that. You put together people like myself -- who have been in the environment and who have the knowledge and experience -- and you team us with a dedicated engineer like Peter Lavigne, you get a high-quality product and you get a high-quality transition."

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NSRDEC is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.

RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.