Nanotechnology in Processing and Packaging

Nanotechnology’s promises may be fulfilled earlier in the processing and packaging areas than in the ingredient realm, with improved filtration, new structural materials and sensors that detect pathogens.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Of course, such sensors are still in their infancy. Research will continue to enhance their effectiveness and extend application. Some employ interactive antibody cells. Others incorporate gas sensors that capture the "smell" of triethylene or some other telltale substance as spoilage pathogens multiply.

Not so small energy savings

 

Note to R&D
The food industry has turned to nanotechnology with a mix of hope and trepidation. The same folks who rush out to buy the latest electronics at Best Buy may batten down the hatches when they catch a whiff of biotechnology or irradiation in the food forecast. So "caution" has governed the industry's priorities in the application of nanotechnology. Though hopes are high for nanotech to deliver foods with powerful implications for health and nutrition, don't be surprised if it quietly takes off in the processing and packaging arenas long before it delivers superfoods.

 

The Family Cow milk plnat in Crowell, Texas, has incorporated nanotechnology-based insulation coatings from Industrial Nanotech (www.industrial-nanotech.com), Naples, Fla., for its dairy processing tanks and pipes. The water-based translucent coating, sold as Nansulate PT, is applied directly to equipment and metallic substrates.

The products, which are also being used in brewery applications, are designed to provide thermal insulation and corrosion protection. Using a patented nanocomposite material called Hydro-NM-Oxide along with acrylic resin and a performance additive, the insulation coating prevents condensation and rust and minimizes thermal loss. Processors gain in processing efficiency, reduced energy costs, and extended equipment life.

Energy savings is a major reason processors are pursuing the technology, according to Francesca Crolley, vice president operations and marketing for Industrial Nanotech. "Companies are making energy savings a priority due to the climbing costs of oil and fuel," she said. "Our products provide a cost-effective solution."

The company also markets Nansulate GP for wood, fiberglass and non-metal substrates, plus specialty products such as Nansulate Chill Pipe and Nansulate High Heat for equipment used in extreme temperature environments.

Crolley foresees nanotechnology's use in the creation of super-strong, low-cost materials that could conceivably eliminate the need for steel and certain plastics.

Nano frying

 

OilFresh markets a catalytic oil reforming device that employs nanotechnology to suppress the oxidation and polymerization while markedly enhancing the heat conductivity of oil.
OilFresh markets a catalytic oil reforming device that employs nanotechnology to suppress the oxidation and polymerization while markedly enhancing the heat conductivity of oil.

 

Deep fat frying remains a popular mode of food preparation because it cooks quickly and holds in food flavor. Unfortunately, frying oils degrade rapidly during their exposure to high heat. Retaining an oil's heat conductivity at a high level is critical to the oil's performance and resultant food quality.

"In reality, however, as the oil molecules grow in size by clustering through heat polymerization, the oil will gradually lose high heat conductivity," explains Sonny Oh, co-founder and CEO of OilFresh (www.oilfresh.com), Sunnyvale, Calif. "The result is inferior cooked food qualities."

OilFresh markets a catalytic oil reforming device that employs nanotechnology. "It suppresses the oxidation and polymerization while markedly enhancing the heat conductivity of oil even at a lower fryer temperature setting by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit," says Oh. OilFresh currently markets the device to restaurants, but it has its eye on processors of deep-fried foods.

"We have been working closely with a potato chip producing company," says Oh. "They have tested our product and decided to adopt the OilFresh device for their line. Among other features, they like its effectiveness in keeping the peroxide value under control, which they believe to be the most important factor for the cooked food quality and desirable shelf life."

OilFresh has designed a prototype for the processor. It is scheduled for installation at this writing.
"Our products have high design flexibility and can be customized for large or small food processing companies," says Oh who foresees his company finding other applications of nanotechnology for processors.

Nano filtration

The dairy industry has long known the benefits of microfiltration, and with health and safety issues always atop their list of concerns, dairy processors have given nano a warmer welcome. Filtering out dangerous pathogens and spoilage organisms is of paramount importance to the industry. Cheese makers in particular rely heavily on ultra-filtration for quality product and cost effective production.

"We can create a membrane size such that it only allows pure milk to go through," says Huang. "A nano filtration membrane, also known as a molecular sieve, can be nicely done."

Dairy processors also like the promise of nanotechnology to reduce maintenance requirements. Holes or material build-up on membranes employed in milk processing require cleaning or replacement. Huang says that the addition of nano coatings on membranes can help to reduce both damage and build-up to the membranes, reducing bi-monthly cleaning to every two years.

The nano future

Perennial fears of a consumer backlash to any technology or innovation perceived as a health danger has kept the industry on its heels. Add tight profit margins and white-knuckled demand for return on investment and the industry's cautious entry into the nano realm becomes easy to understand.

At counterpoint to this resistance to change is the mind-boggling potential of nanotechnology in the food world. Giants like Nestle, Kraft, H.J. Heinz, and Unilever have kept quietly to the quest and supported nano research. But so much of the industry has played wait-and-see that applications are likely to come in creeps rather than waves.

"A lot of food companies hesitate to invest (in nano research)," says Rutgers' Huang. "Most of the research is being done by the big companies like Unilever and Kraft.

And exactly how much are Unilever and Kraft doing?

"That's their secret," says Huang. "But we need the industry's support. You can have a lot of ideas and concepts, but without the industry behind you, it's hard to do much."

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