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Project seeks processors for nanotech product development

By George Reynolds , 23-Jan-2007

A UK-based consultant is looking for processors to join a collaborative research project aimed at exploring the benefits that nanotechnology can bring to the food and drink industries.

Leatherhead, a food industry consultant, is searching for companies looking to examine ways to apply nanotechnology to processing.

The technology -- which deals with controlling matter at near-atomic scales to produce unique materials, products and devices -- has been touted as the next revolution in many industries, including food manufacturing and packaging.

Yet public concerns have been raised that nanostructured materials could potentially lead to unforeseen health or environmental hazards. In the food area fears arise over the unknown consequences of digesting nano-scale particles designed to behave in specific way in the body.

The Leatherhead project's emphasis will be on product development and the incorporation of the technology into ingredients. The project will also create a forum for the discussion and exchange of ideas with experts in the field.

Trial research will also be conducted to produce a "sneak preview" of the feasibility of novel applications.

To kick off the project Leatherhead plans to present an overview of nanotechnology and the potential applications once project participants have been chosen. Electronic updates will be provided during the term of the project giving information on latest nanotechnology practices.

The project will also address issues relating to regulation and labeling. The input from the interested companies will be used to drive the trial experimental stage.

The deadline for submitting an expression of interest to participate in the project is 9 February 2007.

The potential benefits of nanotechnology have been recognized by many industries, and commercial products are already being manufactured, such as in the microelectronics, aerospace, and pharmaceutical industries. Developments in these industries are driven by fundamental and applied research in physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and materials science.

In contrast, applications of nanotechnology within the food industry are rather limited in comparison.

Scientists suggest areas of current research that could prove useful for the food sector in the near future include the molecular design of protective surface systems, surface engineering, and various methods of manufacturing, such as electrospinning and nanofiltration.

Other areas where nanotechnology has the potential to impact food and agricultural systems include security, disease-treatment delivery methods, tools for molecular and cellular biology, materials for pathogen detection, and the protection of the environment.

Such examples include the use of nanotechnology for achieving further advancements in the security of manufacturing, processing, and shipping of food products through sensors for pathogen and contaminant detection.

Devices to maintain historical environmental records of a particular product and tracking of individual shipments could also be developed.

Other nanotechnology developments are systems to provide the integration of sensing, localization, reporting, and remote control of products, and transportation, and the encapsulation and delivery mechanisms for functional ingredients to their specific site of action.

The influence of the material properties of foods at the nanoscale level on their bioavailability and nutritional value has been highlighted by at least two scientific studies. In addition, other scientists have investigated the relationship between the morphology of food materials and their bulk physicochemical properties.

Such studies include ones on biopolymers in solutions, gels, and films. One study found functional nanostructures can incorporate individual biological molecules, which is useful in the development of biosensors that can use natural sugars or proteins as target-recognition groups.

The limited application of nanotechnology to the food industry will change as nanofabrication technologies become more cost-effective, scientists suggest.

Such areas include the development of functional ingredients such as drugs, vitamins, antimicrobials, antioxidants, flavorings, colourants, and preservatives.

Association colloids could be another fertile area for commercialisation. Association colloids include surfactant micelles, vesicles, bilayers, reverse micelles, and liquid crystals - used for many years to encapsulate and deliver polar, nonpolar, or amphiphilic functional ingredients.

Nano-emulsions such as the use of high-pressure valve homogenizers or microfluidizers could be used to incorporate functional food components within the droplets, the interfacial region, or the continuous phase.

Nanostructured multiple emulsions can be another area of work, used to create delivery systems with novel encapsulation and delivery properties. The most common examples of this are oil-in-water-in-oil and water-in-oil-in-water emulsions.

For example, a nanostructured emulsion would consist of nanometer-sized water droplets or reverse micelles contained within larger oil droplets that are dispersed within an aqueous continuous phase.

Functional food components could be encapsulated within the inner water phase, the oil phase, or the outer water phase, thereby making it possible to develop a single delivery system that contains multiple functional components.

The technology could be used to separate aqueous phase components that might adversely react with each other if they were present in the same aqueous phase. It could also be used to protect and release an aqueous phase component trapped within the inner water droplets to a specific site such as the mouth, stomach, or small intestine, they suggest.

Another area for commercialisation is the use of nanostructured multilayer emulsions. Recent studies show that the use of multilayer emulsions can create novel delivery systems.

Such systems typically consist of oil droplets at the core surrounded by a shell of nanometer thick layers. The shell is comprised of different polyelectrolytes.

Under certain circumstances, emulsions containing oil droplets surrounded by multilayer interfaces have been found to have better stability against environmental stresses than conventional oil-in-water emulsions with single-layer interfaces.

Leatherhead Food International (LFI) provides market intelligence, food research and analysis.