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.
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
|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.
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.
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."