The technology is attractive to the food industry as it promises to yield new solutions to key challenges. Food engineering is one of the areas receiving the highest attention, according to an EU report published last year. Research and development underway includes the development of functional food, nutrient delivery systems and methods for optimizing food appearance, such as colour, flavour and consistency.
In the food-packaging arena, nanomaterials are being developed with enhanced mechanical and thermal properties to ensure better protection of foods from exterior mechanical, thermal, chemical or microbiological effects.
On behalf of an unnamed company the UK-based Institute of Nanotechnology (IoN) has put out a call for a company involved in micro and nanotechnology research that might be translated into applications.
The collaboration in nanotechnology involves what is described as "one of the world's largest premium drinks companies"; which is looking for specific projects.
One application involves packaging material with functional barrier properties. The material would have specific properties related to selective gas transfer, the release of freshness compounds from the pack material and the stripping out of degradation compounds over time.
The material would also form a barrier to UV light and have anti-bacterial, acoustic and tactile properties. The material is described as "glass/metal-like plastic" in the project description.
The drinks company was functional benefits such as increased freshness and taste. The bottles would be lighter than glass and allow the company to sell bottles in drink segments where so far glass bottles can't be sold
The document also describes a material that can be used as a "coating for whisky/ rum casks that decreases the 'angel's share' of product". The term refers to the loss through evaporation of alcohol stored in wooden casks.
The company is also looking for a collaborator to create "Nano-widgets". A widget is a capsule used in beer cans to release gas into the liquid, creating a foamy, carbonated drink.
Gas would be encapsulated within the nano widget. The external surface of widget would be engineered to provide a site for nucleation. A liquid or active agent could also be encapsulated within widget. The widget would work to prolong bubble release and would create "theatre effects" during consumption.
A variety of other companies are also pioneering developments in food packaging, including techniques to improve food safety and supply chain tracking. Some nanotech products, such as anti-microbial films, have already entered the market.
For example nanotechnology, in the form of nanoparticles, could be used by companies to target nutrients to specific areas in the body, according toscientists. A variety of companies are also pioneering developments in food packaging, including techniques to improve food safety and supply chain tracking. Some nanotech products, such as anti-microbial films, have already entered the market
However public and scientific concern about the health effects of the technology, which due to its nature is difficult to understand, could hold back its development.
Worldwide sales of nanotechnology products to the food and beverage packaging sector jumped to US$860m (€687.5m) in 2004 from US$150m (€120m) in 2002, according to a study by consultant Helmut Kaiser.
The German firm predicts that nanotechnology will change 25 per cent of the food packaging business in the next decade leading to a yearly market of about $30bn (€24bn).
The Institute of Nanotechnology works with governments, universities, researchers and companies worldwide on micro and nanotechnology. Its current members include Unilever, Degussa, Lot Oriel, Sulzer, Veeco, QinetiQ, INSTM, Toshiba, Merck and ICI.