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SPECIAL EDITION: NANOTECHNOLOGY

Is the food processing industry poised to embrace nanocoatings?

By Rory Harrington , 31-May-2010
Last updated the 27-Jul-2010 at 08:41 GMT

Nanocoatings on food processing equipment hold huge potential for boosting safety and performance but lingering doubts and cost concerns among industry players are hampering take up, said an expert

But one company that produces a nano-scale coating product said such barriers are “falling daily” as companies begin to embrace nanotech know-how.

So - while uncertainties still exist – to what extent is the food processing sector readying itself to accept the breakthroughs offered by nanocoatings?

Nanocoating potential

There is widespread acknowledgement among a host of industry experts that nanocoatings on processing machinery could help realise a step-change in food production. But - as with so much connected to nanotechnology - companies are waiting for others to go first and costs to fall.

“Nanocoatings can be applied to machinery to inhibit bacteria growth, which means they need less cleaning,” Kathy Groves, project manager of microscopy at Leatherhead Food Research told FoodProductionDaily.com. “They do not kill bacteria but prevent the microorganisms from adhering to surfaces.”

She added the resulting reduction in cleaning also cuts down on the need for detergents. The coatings could also be used on pipes and heat exchangers with a view to decreasing the build up of deposits on their surfaces – so called biofouling.

“Over time product residue builds up and the process has to be stopped to allow cleaning to take place. Clearly, use of nanocoatings means products would stick much less which would reduce the need for this, resulting in less downtime and more efficient maintenance,” said Groves. “There is real interest in the industry for this.”

The technology could also see nano-coated blades staying sharper for longer – once again increasing operating efficiency and cutting downtime.

Uncertainty

But despite the clear potential the coatings are not being used because food processors need to be certain they will work in their specific application and that they are food safe, said the Leatherhead microscopy expert.

“Part of the problem is that it is a big decision to coat equipment and pipework with nanomaterials,” she added. “The technology has great potential but the sheer cost and uncertainty means companies do not know what to do and are waiting for others to take the plunge.”

But Groves said the wider-scale penetration of nanocoatings will come “sooner rather than later” as the technology becomes more established and because it is already used in other segments of the food industry, such as packaging.

Barriers falling

This view was backed by Germany-based company Nanopool which said that its nano-scale anti-microbial liquid glass product is being increasingly taken up the food processing industry as companies are convinced of its benefits and safety.

The silicon dioxide material forms a flexible and breathable barrier - around 100 nanometres thick - that stops bacteria bonding to it because of its very low surface energy, company UK project manager Neil McClelland told FoodProductionDaily.com. The food-safe coating contains no nanoparticles such as nanotubes or silver ions, and can be sprayed or wiped on to surfaces. Nanopool said it can cut cleaning costs by 35 per cent and, depending on the thickness of layer applied, lasts from one to three years.

“We already have a number of clients in the food industry such as McDonalds, as well as other major players in the biscuit, drinks, ready meals, meat and fish processing sectors,” he added. “There have been barriers to the uptake of nanotechnology in the food industry – but we are seeing those barriers fall daily as people recognise the value and benefits of our product.”

The company said take up of its product has so far been greatest in Germany and Austria, with more processors in the UK starting to come on board.