Space station technology applied to food packaging

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nanotechnology, Oxygen, Sintef

A film being developed to improve the permeability of gases for use
in space stations could also provide a breakthrough for food
packaging, writes Anthony Fletcher.

The Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research at the Norwegian Institute of Technology (SINTEF) is using nanotechnology to create small particles in the film and improve the transportation of some gases through the plastic film to pump out dirty air such as carbon dioxide.

It is hoped that the concept could be used to block out harmful gases that shorten the shelf life of food. SINTEF​ scientists are looking at whether the film could also provide barrier protection and prevent gases such as oxygen and ethylene from deteriorating food.

Nanotechnology is concerned with the production and control of materials and objects on the nanoscale, which is, to say the least, small. One nanometer is the same as one millionth of a millimetre.

The attraction of the technology is that new materials and processes, with functions and properties that cannot be achieved otherwise, can in principle be made through the accurate control at this atomic and molecular level. Some scientists envisage nano-size factories in the future.

Nanotechnology is not a single technology as such, "​ Anders Hammeborg, research director of the microsystems and nanotechnology department at SINTEF, told

"It is more a common term for working at the level of atoms and molecules, and developing new functionalities from the different physical properties that exist at that level."

SINTEF is at the cutting edge of this new science. A new microsystems lab has just been opened in Oslo, Norway, and the organisation has facilities in Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany and the UK.

A recent study from Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, which looked into nanotechnology in the food industry estimated that the nanofood market will surge from $2.6 billion today to 20.4 billion in 2010, as the industry begins to realise the potential benefits. According to packaging consultancy Pira, these include the manufacture of film that will remain transparent, providing the materials are kept smaller than half a micrometer.

And of course, a clear film can be important in the presentation and saleability of certain food products.

This would represent a departure from the use of films that are multi-layered or include oxygen scavengers, which are produced to look hazy at best. Food package would be used in conjunction with another active component such as a gas scavenger, modified atmosphere packaging or silicon oxide coating.

Hammeborg said that although he was no expert in the field of food production and packaging, he believed that nanotechnology had other potential uses for the sector. "For example, it could be used for tagging purposes, to help identify the origin of food,"​ he said.

"I think the technology will become cost-effective - in fact I think it will become a requirement. There is a strong emphasis on quality in Europe."

Already, more than 200 companies around the world active in research and development. USA is the leader followed by Japan and China. If scientific expectations for nanotechnology come to fruition, then the technology could have a tremendous impact on the future of food production and packaging.

"I think we will not see nantechnology used in this way for another 10 to 15 years,"​ said Hammeborg. "But that is only my opinion."

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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