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Special Edition: Nanotechnology

Food sector and R&D need to chew the nano fat for wider take-up: analyst

By Jane Byrne , 01-Jun-2010
Last updated on 01-Jun-2010 at 15:00 GMT

The benefits for nano-packaging, showing how it can overcome current food and drink industry challenges in terms of shelf life, distribution or sustainability, need to become more apparent in order to ensure widespread commercial implementation, says an industry insider.

Graham Moore, a consultant with PIRA International, which tests packaging for industry, said that nano particles and composites as well as nano sensors for distribution chains tend to be the focus of R&D currently but input from food and drink makers is lacking and means take up is limited.

“What can nano do for the food and drink sector? Industry needs to answer this and roundtables involving processors, academia, research groups and commercial developers are essential to highlight sector challenges that nano functionality can overcome as well as weighing up cost over benefit on conventional methods,” he argues.

In tandem with this collaborative approach, continues Moore, a real trigger is required to accelerate greater investment in nano-based particles, composites or sensors:

Essentially, until there is greater regulatory pressure for lighter weight packaging or further demands on the food and drink distribution chain from the retail sector, the adoption of novel nano-based technologies will be sluggish,” maintains Moore.

Dialogue begins

Assistance for finding potential partners for collaborative nanotechnology R&D projects is a core role of an UK government funded new technology driver body called NanoKTN (knowledge transfer network).

Speaking to this publication this morning, Barry Park, theme manager, chemicals & consumer products at NanoKTN, said that its new series of workshops, starting next week, on developments in nano food contact materials and their benefits in relation to food safety, quality and shelf life are aimed at kickstarting dialogue between end users and nano technology developers.

The seminars, he said, will involve presentations from companies such as Spain-based Nanogap, which is developing silver nanoparticles for use in antimicrobial packaging, as well as barrier coating suppliers, Sun Chemical Limited and Peer Coatings, while a representative from Unilever will highlight future industry requirements in this regard.

He said that the workshops, which are being run in conjunction with Leatherhead Food Research, were prompted by the House of Lords report released earlier this year, which recommended communication was essential to avoid a knee-jerk rejection of nano technology by the food and drink sector in the UK.

“As a first step in the process, we will disseminate the results of the worshops with end users, and we envisage ongoing debate within the UK on how to drive down costs and encourage investment in these technologies,” added Park.

Expansion forecast

He claims that expansion in nano-based food packaging is extremely likely, with growth being fuelled by a hike in demand for shelf-life enhancing packing as the supply chain becomes more globalised, and he argues that while cost is currently a barrier to take-up nano is certainly not any different from any other new technology in this respect.

A recent report by iRAP forecast the global nano-packaging market would to climb from $4.13bn in 2008 to $7.3bn by 2014 – with an average growth rate of 11.65 per cent per annum. The report also claims that categories such as bakery and meat products are attracting the most nano-packaging applications.

Park said that as nano based packaging is novel, it is difficult to scope the number of suppliers developing products in this area: “Transparency, at this early stage, is, as you would expect, somewhat inhibited by standard intellectual property restrictions,” said Park.

Nanoclays and beyond

A report on Nanotechnology Now last year highlighted some of the interesting projects underway in the UK and other parts of Europe, and it revealed that the University of Leeds in the UK is testing packaging made with nano particles of zinc, calcium, magnesium oxide and titanium dioxide for antimicrobial packaging.

Meanwhile researchers at the University of Hohenheim in Germany and the Agrochemistry and Food Technology Institute in Spain, continued the report, are electrospinning chitosan in order to create antimicrobial nano fibres from a sustainable source for green food packaging.

And biodegradable bioplastics, usually made from plant-based materials, have become a big research focus for nanotechnology with the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland said to be looking at ways to improve the barrier properties of these through the use of nano coatings, while reducing the brittleness of starch-based biopolymers is another ongoing target of R&D.

And, last month, Swedish research company Innventia announced that it was close to completing a pilot plant that will enable the production of nanocelluose on a commercial scale for the first time thanks to the development of an energy-efficient process that has cut electricity consumption by 98 per cent, it said.

Nanocellulose, which is extracted from wood fibres, can be used in the production of highly effective barrier films for biscuit packaging, and the substance is sustainable as it comes from a renewable source, in contrast to many other oil-based materials, said the company.

Over in the US, nanoclays are being embedded in plastic bottles and nylon food films to stiffen packaging and reduce gas permeability.

Bayer Polymers is producing a nanoclay composite interior coating for paperboard cartons that is claimed to keep juice fresher, and Nanocor’s Imperm or Honeywell's Aegis OX with oxygen radical scavenging ability is said to give beer in plastic bottle a six month shelf life.