Nanocor, a subsidiary of Amcol International Corp., is a world leader in the production of nanocomposites, which are polymers bonded with nanocrystals to provide the materials with enhanced properties. The company is currently producing nanocomposites for use in plastic beer bottles that give the contents a six-month shelf- life.
The material works by introducing nanocrystals into the plastic that essentially create a maze from which oxygen molecules find it difficult to escape.
Nanocor and another company, Southern Clay, are working on improvements expected to increase shelflife up to 18 months.
In addition to addressing spoilage and flavour issues, nanocomposites also offer other benefits like lighter weight and better recyclability, and suggest that producers may be able to significantly reduce transportation and production costs by reducing the amount of material used to package items. Nanocomposites, at the present time, are more expensive than most plastic resins but the price continues to drop and Nanocor officials have said that they expect their nanocomposites materials to “be very cost competitive” in the near future.
Such predictions and the fact that nanocomposites do not require plastics manufacturers to alter or retool their existing manufacturing process systems are two reasons why Principia Markets, a consulting firm that tracks the plastics market, estimates that the market for nanocomposites could reach 1 billion pounds by 2010.
Longer term, researchers are optimistic that they can manufacture materials to change properties depending on external or internal conditions. For example, researchers hope to use the changing molecular composition of milk that is beginning to spoil to bring about a reaction with nanoparticles embedded in the packaging, causing the colour of the packaging to change.
The advantage of such a technology is that store owners and consumers alike could easily tell if the product’s quality had declined.
Researchers are even experimenting with materials that will change their properties to address outside environmental factors such as temperature or humidity. For instance, imagine an ice cream carton that would tighten its existing molecular structure to prevent heat from affecting the content if it was left in the back of an automobile on a hot summer day.