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Applying OU expertise to food and drink sector challenges


Collective expertise gained from these missions will develop bespoke analytical instrument solutions to terrestrial challenges.

SPRINT network partner, The Open University has built on the lessons learnt from designing, building, validating and applying sample preparation systems for mass spectrometer instruments, including Ptolemy and GAP on the Rosetta and Beagle2 missions.

The Open University is now continuing to translate the collective expertise gained from these missions to the development of bespoke analytical instrument solutions to terrestrial challenges. These have included the creation of new testing methods using cutting-edge gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and comprehensive gas chromatography (GCxGC) techniques which have been applied to the food and drink sector to solve various analytical challenges.

Developing bespoke solutions for customer-led challenges

Dr Geraint Huw Morgan

Dr Geraint Huw Morgan from the School of Physical Sciences at The Open University said: “Through the SPRINT funding provided for various projects, we have been able to develop strategic relationships with a wide range of commercial companies. This has enabled us to strengthen our capabilities and expertise in developing instruments for the Rosetta and Beagle2 space missions whilst also broadening our already-extensive portfolio of novel laboratory assays.

“We aim to continue working with companies in various sectors to demonstrate that our research delivers impact with reach and significance.”

Examples of this OU research expertise have been conducted in major SPRINT projects with a range of organisations including Efficiency Technologies Ltd, HE Stringer Flavours Ltd, Nutrapharma Limited, The Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) and LECO Instruments.

Targeting new UK sectors with innovative mass spectrometry applications

Stockport-based LECO Instruments (UK) Limited, a leader in the development of mass spectrometry equipment and applications, has collaborated with the Applied Science & Technology Group, based at The Open University, to create innovative analytical processes and target several key sectors including food safety, sensory, and forensics and toxicology.

The project enabled LECO to target customers with a complete application-specific solution including instrumentation, training and application operating procedures that have been created and evaluated by The Open University.

Helping to enhance counterfeit detection

The Space Instrumentation Discipline at The Open University (OU) has helped the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) to evaluate innovative gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GCMS) techniques. This enhanced its authentication capabilities, to more accurately detect counterfeit products and protect one of the UK’s largest export sectors, worth £4.7bn to the UK economy.


The SWRI carries out research into the authentication of suspect whisky products sourced globally, on behalf of its members – representing approximately 90 per cent of the production capacity of the Scotch Whisky sector – as well as the distilling industry and enforcement agencies.

Each whisky produces a complex profile of hundreds of organic compounds, a pattern that can be used to fingerprint the whisky brand. Working with The Open University, the SWRI explored a range of comprehensive, 1D and 2D gas chromatography techniques to separate the complex mixture of volatile species present and identify even the most subtle differences between samples. Initially, this was a laboratory-based solution but the longer-term aim is to utilise the OU space instrumentation expertise to jointly develop a small, rugged, field portable system for global use.

Optimising methodology for evaluating new commercial food flavourings

H E Stringer Flavours (HESF), an independent manufacturer of creative and cost-effective flavourings, extracts and aromas for food manufacturers, has collaborated with The Open University to develop protocols that will accelerate the evaluation of new products and materials for commercialisation.

HESF supplies a range of diverse products from bakery, dairy, ice cream, vegan approved meat and dairy flavours, and beverages from cola through to gin, and non-alcoholic alternatives. HESF accessed systems and expertise from the OU to develop new analytical solutions that ensure the optimum quality control and technical evaluation of raw ingredients and their impact on finished flavour solutions.

The Open University provided HESF with state-of-the-art laboratory facilities and expertise in laboratory assay development. The OU utilised its portfolio of gas chromatography (GC-MS) and comprehensive gas chromatography­mass spectrometer (GCXGC-MS) systems.

The project examined the suitability of novel GC-MS and GCxGC-MS assays against a range of products and formulations to evaluate and fully characterise samples from areas including steam extracted herbal compounds, natural oils, botanicals, extracts, and masking and sensory enhancement compounds. Ultimately, the project has directly resulted in new products and customers.

Developing new range of nutraceutical products to boost UK food sustainability

To develop novel powder products for the nutraceutical sector, Lincoln-based SME, Nutrapharma has collaborated with The Open University to identify specific compounds present in powders generated from food waste. This enabled the company to be the first to market in the nutraceutical sector to apply this process to local produce.

Nutraceuticals are any substance that is a food or part of a food, and provide medical or health benefits. Nutrapharma believes that focusing on previously discarded, but nutritionally valuable, products can boost food sustainability by developing new, premium products, rich in fibre, nutrients and nutraceuticals, for food and food ingredient companies.

The Open University provided Nutrapharma with the laboratory facilities and expertise in laboratory assay development and novel analytical methods, utilising the OU’s portfolio of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), comprehensive gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCXGC-MS) and liquid chromatography -mass spectrometry (LC-MS) systems. 

Analysing chemical extraction for deployment in UK food and drink sector

To support the extraction and deployment processes involved in premium quality chemicals for use in the UK food and drink sector, Milton Keynes-based business, Efficiency Technologies Ltd has utilised The Open University’s space-related expertise to improve the analysis involved in chemical extraction processes.

The project focused on Efficiency Technologies’ flavonoid extraction process – the family of compounds, obtained from plants, that provide our food and drink with their unique flavour and smell. Working with the Applied Science & Technology Group, a member of the Space Strategic Research Area at The Open University, the SPRINT project enabled Efficiency Technologies to develop a new low-level analytical method of profiling, which is designed to be used in the production process phase, to monitor the correct levels of critical compounds. This ensures that natural variability can be controlled and adapted to provide the highest premium product quality.

Flavonoid profiling at low levels is complex and can be time consuming. Existing analytical methods fail to detect the very low levels of key flavour molecules which are critical to the natural complexity and taste. This project focused on how the use of novel extraction techniques can change the flavour profile during extraction and how it can have a major impact on the value of the recovered materials and the time taken to generate the product.

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