Nanotechnology: Shaping the oils industry atom by atom?
By Fiona Case
Posted 2/24/06 2:24 PM
The U.S. National Nanotechnology
Coordination Office (www.nano.gov)
defines nanotechnology as “the understanding
and control of matter at dimensions of
roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where unique
phenomena enable novel applications.” Eric
Drexler introduced the term in 1986 in his
book, Engines of Creation. Since then, things
“nano” have captured the public imagination—
from the visions of self-replicating
nanobots taking over the world in Michael
Crichton’s book Prey, to promises of injectable
nano-robots that could locate and correct diseases
at a molecular level.
New methods of characterization such
as scanning probe microscopy, and new developments
in theory and modeling opened a
window onto the nanoscale world. Scientists
were fascinated by what they found. However,
nanotechnology might have remained an
intellectual curiosity if there had not been a
pressing commercial need for smaller length
scale devices in the electronics industry.
The desire for smaller and faster computer
chips provided the initial impetus
and investment; the energy, drug delivery,
and materials industries are now actively
involved. The U.S. National Science
Foundation predicts that within 15 years technology
identified as “nanotech” will have
had a trillion-dollar impact on a wide range
A computer simulation of the formation of nanoscale structure using self assembly: An
equimolar mixture of cationic surfactants (pink heads green tails) and anionic surfactants
(white heads, green tails) are predicted to self assemble to form a small hollow vesicle.
The eight snapshots are taken from a simulation of 30 microseconds. In the last snapshot
the water is also displayed. The simulation was carried out by Fiona Case using dissipative
particle dynamics software developed by Culgi BV, Leiden, Netherlands.
Uses in the oils industry
The early days of nanotechnology were hard,
literally. Most of the talk was about hard
quantum dots, nanoparticles, and carbon nanotubes.
It is perhaps not obvious that these
materials would have an impact on the edible
oils industry, but there are already a
few examples in this, and in the related foods
The OilFresh catalyst system for deep
fat frying is based on nanoparticle technology.
“Nanoceramic catalytic pellets are fused
together to create a huge surface area on the
catalyst surface,” explains Sonny Oh, cofounder
of the OilFresh company, Sunnyvale,
California, USA. This structure is critical to
the action of the system, which, he claims,
significantly extends the fry life of oils by
reducing oxidative degradation.
The OilFresh device is already in use
in a number of individual restaurants. Oh
believes that the technology could help large
fast-food chains such as KFC, McDonald’s,
and Burger King maintain cost-neutrality if
they decide to transition to more expensive
oils in response to consumer concerns
about trans fatty acids.
Another example is the inclusion of
nanoparticles in packaging materials. Microscale
TiO2 particles are brilliant white pigments
because they scatter all wavelengths
of light. Nano-scale TiO2 particles no longer
scatter visible light (they are transparent),
but they still block ultraviolet (UV) light.
Clear plastic food wraps incorporating TiO2
nanoparticles provide excellent UV protection.
Other inorganic nanoparticles (for example,
derived from clays) can provide a
transparent oxygen barrier in food packaging
materials preventing the oxidation of fats
A 1998 patent granted to Mars,
Incorporated, McLean, Virginia, USA, claims
that coatings of edible inorganic particles on
candy will prevent it from getting sticky, that
nanoparticle coatings on cookies will increase
their shelf life, and that they may reduce the
need for antioxidants and preservatives.
According to the inventors, the coatings
should be thin to respect texture and “mouthfeel”
considerations: the ideal coating would
be somewhere between 0.1nm and 500nm
Initially, people working on nanotechnology
did indeed think of creating structures “atom
by atom.” When, in 1989, Donald M. Eigler
and Erhard K. Schweizer, physicists working
at IBM (headquartered at Armonk, New
York, USA) were able to move atoms of xenon
across a nickel crystal surface to spell out
their company’s name the image quickly
became iconic. But this was never going to
be a practical approach for mass production.
In recent years interest has shifted to
nanostructured materials that self-assemble
(so called “bottom up” approaches).
Amphiphilic molecules that include segments
with different properties can be induced to
self-assemble, forming nano-scale structure.
The obvious examples are surfactants, block
copolymers and proteins. These self-assembled
nanostructures are soft and can almost
as easily be disassembled, however approaches
such as crosslinking surfactants or block
copolymers, inducing crystallization, or using
the soft structures as templates for mineralization,
or as resists for photolithography,
can lead to the formation of more durable
When IBM started to reach the limits of
patterning using bottom-down approaches
such as lithography, they turned to block
copolymer templating—for example to generate
arrays of floating gates in the latest generation
of flash memory chips.
In some applications the tendency for selfassembled
materials to disassemble or change
their nanoscale structure when, for example,
the temperature of the material is changed, can
be an advantage. The polymers in the material
shown of the cover of this month’s inform stack
up to form a twisted nanostructure. The pitch
of the twist (the distance over which the ordered
stack of molecules makes a complete turn) is
on the same order as the wavelength of visible
light – so the material is colored. When the
temperature increases the pitch changes, creating
a color change. These cholesteric polymer
films can used as temperature indicators
on food packaging.
The idea that self-assembly of molecules
and crystallization can create nanometer
to micron sized structures in soft materials
is hardly new to researchers who study oils
and fats. Many of the new characterization
techniques that spurred the nanotechnology
revolution have also been used to elucidate
the nanoscale structure of these materials.
AOCS member Paul Smith and Annika
Dahlman from the YKI Institute for Surface
Chemistry, Stockholm, Sweden, have used
atomic force microscopy to measure the formation
and development of nanoscale structures
on the surface of chocolate pralines.
Oleksandr Mykhaylyk and Ian Hamley from
the University of Leeds, UK, have used small
angle X-ray scattering to clarify the γ and
β structures of triacylglycerols and the driving
forces for their polymorphic transformations.
Peter Schurtenberger from the University
of Fribourg in Switzerland has been working
with researchers from Nestlé to develop
new light scattering methods to characterize
oil droplets in milk and yoghurt.
“Food science in general has always
dealt with the nanoscale,” says AOCS member
Alejandro G. Marangoni, Canada Research
Chair in Food and Soft Materials Science
and professor of Food Science at the University
of Guelph. “The question one has to ask oneself,”
he suggests, “is ‘are you deliberately
manipulating the structure of your material
at the nanoscale?’ If the answer is yes, then
you’re doing nanotechnology.”
Marangoni has been working with AOCS
members Stefan Idziak (University of Waterloo,
Ontario) and Gianfranco Mazzanti (University
of Dalhousie, Newfoundland) to develop a
method for “nanotemplating” fats. “We
can orient fat structure crystallographically
by using high shear mixing,” he explains.
“The nanotemplating process increases the
mechanical strength of the fat, which is advantageous
when strong, thin fat laminates are
needed in food applications.”
The deliberate creation of specific nanostructure
in foods has been claimed as a method
for enhancing microbial stability. In their
2002 patent on “Use of mesomorphic phases
in food products” inventors from the Van den
Bergh Foods Co. division of Unilever (UK)
claim that by using edible surfactants (such
as monoglycerides, diglycerides, fatty acid
esters or phospholipids) they can create lamella
structures. The water (up to 95% of the material)
is denied to the microorganisms by being
entrapped in layers approximately 100nm
wide. This far below the size of the microorganisms–
they cannot access the water and
so their growth is limited. Understanding and
control of nanoscale structure in foods is also
critical for physical stability (to prevent phase
separation, sedimentation or creaming).
A dramatic example of the benefits of
reducing particle size is provided by nanodroplets
of hydrophobic materials (such as
oil-soluable vitamins) in water-based systems
like soda or sports-drinks. If the droplet
size is brought down into the sub-micron
range these normally incompatible substances
can easily be mixed even with cold water,
and their bioavailability in the human body
increases. BASF produces “nano-scale” particles
containing carotenoids (antioxidants
that can be converted to vitamin Ain the body)
which it sells to major food & beverage companies
for use in lemonades, fruit juices and
margarine. The Nutralease Company, founded
by AOCS member Nisim Garti from the
Hebrew University in Israel, is using novel
emulsification methods to create what they
describe as “nano-sized liquid vehicles and
technology for solubilization of nutraceuticals
in foods.” Their success stories include
the creation (with Shemen Industries Ltd.
Haifa, Israel) of Canola Active: Canola oil
fortified with free phytosterols, which is
claimed to reduce human cholesterol levels.
Another example is the application of nanostructuring
materials developed by Danisco
(Brabrand, Denmark) to stabilize emulsions
of liquid oils. Their edible surfactant emulsifiers
allow formulation of trans-fat free liquid
oils (such a soybean oil) for baked goods.
Emulsification prevents the oil from migrating
to the food surface. It also reduces the
interaction of oils with the proteins in applications
like cake mixes. This is important
since liquid oil can denature proteins, preventing
them from carrying out the task of
stabilizing air bubbles in the mixture.
In a recent Nature Materials review Peter
Schurtenberger and authors from Nestlé discuss
the prospects for creating stimuli responsive
functional foods capable of changing
their properties or releasing active components
based on pH or temperature changes.
This would require understanding and control
of food structure over a wide range of
It seems unlikely that the edible oils
industry will instigate major nanotechnology
research initiatives. However, the materials
we work with do contain nanoscale
structures. New techniques and methods
developed by the growing nanotechnology
industry will continue be adopted, and it
is likely that new nanotechnology based
devices will impact the industry.
Fiona Case is a freelance writer based in
Burlington, Vermont, USA. She is also an
AOCS member and one of the organizers
for the NSTI Nanotech conferences, which
feature new developments in soft nanotechnology.
Contact her by e-mail:
Further reading on nanotechnology:
- “Nanotechnology, Science, Innovation and Opportunity”, edited by Lynn E. Foster, Prentice Hall, 2006.
- “Understanding Foods as Soft Materials” a review article by Raffaele Mezzenga, Peter Schurtenberger, Adam Burbidge, and Martin Michel, Nature Materials (4): 729–740, 2005.
- “The use of atomic force microscopy to measure the formation and development of chocolate bloom in pralines” Smith P. R., Dahlman A. JAOCS 82: 165–168, 2005.
- “The packing of Triacylglycerols from SAXS measurements: Application to the structure of 1,3-distearoyl-2-oleoyl-sn-glycerol crystal phases”, Mykhaylyk O. O., Hamley I. W., Journ. Phys. Chem. B 108: 8069–8083, 2004.
- ETC Group Report “Down on the Farm: The Impact of Nano-Scale Technologies on Food and Agriculture” available online at netlink: www.etcgroup.org.
Find out more about nanotechnology
The Nanotech2006 conference organized by the Nano Science
and Technology Insitute (NSTI) will take place in Boston,
Massachusetts, USA, May 7-11, 2006 (the week after the AOCS
Annual Meeting & Expo). The event includes almost 1000 presentations
organized into 30 symposia, and a large exhibition. The
symposium on “soft nanotechnology—nanostructured fluids, soft
materials and self-assembly” is being organized by AOCS member
Fiona Case and includes several speakers from the food and
personal care industries.
Nanotechnology impacts a wide range of areas so the Nanotech
conferences are highly multidisciplinary. To alleviate the “language”
problems this can cause, most symposia feature introductory
overview lectures, making the conference a good choice
for those that are new to the field. NSTI also offers one and twoday
short courses and workshops in the United States and in Europe.
More information is available online at www.nsti.org/Nanotech2006.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (Cambridge,
Massachusetts, USA) Professional Education Programs office is
offering a short course on “Nanostructured Fluids and Particles in
Materials, Chemical, Biological and Pharmaceutical Technologies”
June 12-16, 2006. The goal of this course is to introduce the fundamentals
and applications of nanostructured fluids, often referred
to as complex fluids, to industrial scientists and engineers and those
with managerial responsibility for research. (telephone: +1-617-
253-2101; fax: +1-617-258-8831; e-mail: professionalinstitute@
mit.edu; netlink: http://web.mit.edu/mitpep).
The Foresight Institute organizes public lectures and events on
nanotechnology topics (mostly held in the western United States).
Their website provides links to nanotech news items and information
on their ambitious Nanotechnology Challenges which include
“meeting global energy needs with clean solutions,” “providing
abundant clean water globally,” “maximizing productivity of agriculture,”
and “making powerful information technology available
everywhere” (netlink: www.foresight.org).
Nanoforum is a pan-European nanotechnology network funded
by the European Union under the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5)
to provide information on European nanotechnology efforts and support
to the European nanotechnology community. On the Nanoforum
website (www.nanoforum.org), all users (whether they are members
of the public, industry, R&D, government or business communities)
can freely access and search a comprehensive database of
European nanoscience and nanotechnology organizations, and find
out the latest on news, events and other relevant information. In addition,
Nanoforum publishes its own specially commissioned reports
on nanotechnology and key market sectors, the economical and societal
impacts of nanotechnology, as well as organizing events throughout
the EU to inform, network and support European expertise.
Story location: http://www.aocs.org/...
Back to News Clips
Back to Press Room