The Science of Small

Nanotech is big, but what’s in it for packaging?  
By Aaron L. Brody
In the current realm of “hot topics”, nanotechnology ranks high. You may not know your protons from your electrons, but you can surely imagine how R&D on a molecule-to-molecule or even micron-to-micron (i.e. very, very small) basis can have great and wide-reaching potential. But what can nanotechnologies offer our relatively narrow niche of packaging?
Well, the world of tiny actually offers some intriguing possibilities. Experts say that all the hype about intelligent or “smart” packaging will become reality through these tiny technologies; in short, the discipline is likely to transform the way our packaging materials are designed, developed and, ultimately, used.
On the medical side, the applications include unique drug delivery formats—antibacterials or aromas that are embedded into the molecules of a packaging structure. Scientists are also exploring the idea of materials with self-healing properties—a concept that could help maintain a package’s hermetic integrity and, thus, the safety of its contents.
On a broader scale, such technologies can delve into the molecular structure of packaging materials to create low weight/high strength properties that enhance the durability of a package; consider that, beyond product protection, such properties have critical implications for buying decisions at the shelf. Other concepts in the nanotech pipeline include oxygen-sensing inks or greater gas-barrier structures that protect and lengthen shelf life; and microscopic intelligence—like embedded barcodes or molecular RFID—that assists with inventory controls and anti-counterfeiting efforts.
One CPG that has embraced nano-packaging R&D is Kraft. The food company took a pioneering step back in 2000 in establishing a consortium of 15 universities and research labs with the hopes of yielding nano-packaging solutions with commercial application.
Miller Brewing is another company with a favoring view of such efforts. The company adopted a material called Imperm, a plastic imbued with clay nano-particles that prevent the alcohol in beer from reacting with plastic bottles. It’s a way for the brewer to safely use more plastic in beer packaging (which is lighter to ship than glass and cheaper than cans) but to keep its products fresher, longer—reportedly six months on the shelf. Such plastics, manipulated at the molecular level to produce more favorable properties, are said to be a major component of nano-packaging for the food and beverage industry, and even the military.
The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center, the core site of military ration and ration packaging research, has been working for years to develop high-barrier, foil replacement films for MREs. The hope is that by embedding nano-sized particles into plastic, the military center can increase the shelf life of retort pouches; reduce solid waste from package materials and facilitate recycling; and permit rapid reheating in microwaves.
These are just a few examples to demonstrate that the next big thing in packaging is going to be, well, small. And while detractors say that it’s still early in the nanotech revolution, and that you cannot expect to gain immediate marketing benefits, at the rate these developments are occurring it won’t be long before nanotechnology will have a transformational impact on the way in which we package brands, and the way you market them. BP
The author, Aaron L. Brody, Ph.D., is President/CEO of Packaging/Brody Inc., a consultancy in food, packaging technology and marketing. Contact Dr. Brody at 770.613.0991 or