Even in a world that passes from one technological revolution to another in the blink of an eye, nanotechnology is mind-boggling. From its efficacy to its mere arithmetic, nanotechnology dazzles. It is hard to stretch our minds sufficiently to comprehend the capability of the infinitesimally tiny particles that are beginning to change our industry and our world.
It all begins with what seems a contradiction: Materials work differently on the submicroscopic level than they do in the big world where we live and operate. That is, the physical chemicals and biological properties of materials operating at the nanoscale differ in basic ways from the properties they have on a macroscale.
An Industrial Nanotech technician applies Nansulate Translucent PT for long-term protection of aluminum ceiling panels.
Nanotechnology refers to the manufacture of functional objects between 1 and 100 nanometers in length. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Or, in a commonly used standard of reference, it is 1/100,000 the diameter of the average human hair.
(Note: The "nano" definition is flexible and has been stretched to accommodate applications of materials up to 200 nanometers. In practice, the differences between technologies using nano- and micron-size materials blur.)
Particles this small operate differently than they do when amassed into the big objects we see and work with each day. This enables some astounding, nearly miraculous effects on foods and technologies to protect human health and safety.
"The nano-scale brings new features, new functions, new properties (of foods and food components) into play," says Qingrong Huang, a Rutgers University (New Brunswick, N.J.) food scientist.
The hope it brings, however, is tempered with caution.
The industry has learned that some technologies can become public relations nightmares regardless of their apparent potential benefits, as evidenced in the public's resistance to irradiation and genetic engineering. Perceived dangers often outweigh perceived benefits no matter what the reality.
Nanotechnology's promise of healthier, safer and tastier products may be fulfilled earlier in the processing and packaging areas than in the ingredient realm. The public will likely welcome low-cost sensors that detect pathogen presence, filters that remove potential undesirable elements before they can reach the food or the consumer and particles that actively seek and destroy harmful bacteria.
Still, industry leaders are probing the awesome potential of the technology. For five years, Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., has invested in the NanoteK Consortium, a group of universities, national laboratories and experimental companies exploring nanotech potential. So have companies like Nestle and Unilever.
Perhaps wary of premature probing from watchdog groups, most manufacturers are laying low on the subject. Kraft claims its only commitment at the moment is to learning about and understanding potential applications of nanotechnology in the areas of food safety, nutrition, health and wellness.
"We have sponsored research at various universities and research institutions to help us imagine the food industry in the years ahead," notes Cathy Pernu, Kraft's senior manager of corporate and government affairs. "Currently, we consider nanotech research as appropriate when it could serve as an enabling technology to achieve a strategy. For example, if it could improve packaging by adding sensors to identify spoiled food."
Pernu emphasizes company commitment to "responsible development and application" of nanotechnology in the key areas of environmental, health and safety.
"While we are still exploring potential applications, in the future we could be purchasing ingredients or packaging materials developed with the technology rather than using it in manufacturing processes," she adds.
The other side of nanotechnology is the creation of new devices or using a nano device to manipulate nano objects on a nano scale.
Food safety is the industry's No. 1 concern, and incorporating minute biosensors at many points in the food chain holds tremendous potential for safety monitoring. Such sensors might detect the presence of dangerous pathogens and give processors an accurate real-time indication of a product's relative quality or safety from the raw material stage to the consumer's kitchen.
For one example, color-coded pathogen indicators employing nanotechnology can test the quality and safety of milk in a container. When the pathogens are present, they bind to the antibodies on the indicator. Different color levels reflect the concentration of the pathogen and the corresponding safety and quality of the milk.
Radio frequency identification technologies employing bio-chips or bio-sensors can enable processors to monitor value-added products at any point in the supply chain. Spoiled seafood, for example, forms the chemical triethylene. Enzymes incorporated into sensors can trigger a response in the presence of triethylene. Personnel can determine product safety or quality issues from almost anywhere via radio frequency signals passing through a central control system. "You can determine when a big load of seafood is bad well before it reaches its destination," Huang explains.