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Just what your fridge needs: A special ultraviolet room for strawberries

refrigeratorYou know the feeling: That not-hungry-but-kind-of-hungry crave that made you stumble toward the fridge to check what’s available to snack on. After all, you bought those strawberries the other day and hadn’t gotten around to finishing them yet, and the more you think about it, some strawberries sound really good right about now. Then, you open your fridge door and remember that maybe it was a bit longer ago than “the other day” that you bought the strawberries and now they’ve gone bad. You know what would have saved those strawberries from being wasted? According to scientists, “some UV rays.”

The problem with that solution – scientifically proven to increase the storage lifespan of strawberries by 100 percent – is that, while exposing fruit to germicidal ultraviolet light soon after harvest may increase their longevity, exposure to such light doesn’t do the same thing for humans. The bulbs that would be required to do so contain mercury and therefore dangerous to the human body.

A scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Components and Health Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland decided to figure a way around that problem. Steven Britz took inspiration for his solution from Blu-ray players, of all things, and set about trying to see if ultraviolet LEDs – more effective at cold temperatures than traditional UV bulbs and contain less mercury – could be used in refrigerators, instead.

Working with technicians from South Carolina-based LED manufacturer Sensor Electronic Technology, Britz created a prototype system that was tested on regular strawberries purchased from a store and kept in a regular refrigerator at 95 percent humidity. To the surprise of many, the prototype worked; after nine days of storage – double the point at which most strawberries would have shown signs of degradation and mold – the strawberries appeared to be as fresh as they had been when placed in the cooler.

For Britz, this prototype is just the start of technology that could change the fridge life of all manners of food. “In theory you should be able to do this with other fruits,” Britz told New Scientist, describing the potential for having a separate storage space within future refrigerators that would contain UV LEDs to keep food fresh. The storage space would be UV-proof, of course, to help prevent any damage to other foodstuffs that aren’t as friendly to ultraviolet light.

Britz is reportedly preparing to present the results of his tests during the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics in San Jose, California this week; we can only hope that some forward-thinking kitchen appliance manufacturers will be there, taking notes and ready to take this finding to the future.