Hungry for a little knowledge about the nature of nanotechnology? Good. I've put together a gourmet picnic of tasty facts about nanotechnology that's been on the menu every day, for thousands (and thousands) of years. Yes, nanoscale materials have long been part of our food supply -- including the way Mother Nature herself prepared it. Care for a nibble?
What's first in our picnic spread? Let's start with bread. It's been nano-enabled since 5500 BC. That when historians say Egyptians started baking it. How do we know? Recent research at the Indian Institute of Technology found that bread develops carbohydrate-based "food caramels" in the process of dry heat baking. Those food caramels contain carbon nanoparticles.
Now that we have bread, what do you say we slice it up for sandwiches? We may rub a few nanoparticles of silver on the surface when we do the cutting with our silver knife. It seems that silver (and probably other metals) shed nanoparticles over time. A great video by the University of Oregon shows the process. If we use the silver tea service for our beverages, we may drink a few nanoparticles, too.
Next step for our sandwich is some meat. Do you prefer the nano-chicken or the nano-ham? Yes, you read that right: meat can be measured in nanometers, too. A meat fiber has a diameter of about 100 nanometers. And the proteins that make up those fibers are much, much smaller than that.
And what's a picnic without dessert? If you're thinking cookies or cake, you could be asking for a heaping helping of the same nanoparticles that were in your bread. And let's put a scoop of ice cream to it. It turns out that cows are natural nano-producers. Dairy products are made up of fat globules that can get as small as 100 nanometers. Now think even smaller. "Structured" dairy products, which include ice cream (not to mention butter, cheese, whipped cream and yogurt), also include whey proteins, which are even smaller than fat globules. Now youre looking nanoscale elements as small as 1 nanometer. That's a pretty sweet thought.
When you look at the nano-picnic that nature provides, it's no wonder that researchers are looking to nanotechnology to improve our food supply -- from field to fork, as they say. Science is at work improving every aspect of food production, from how its grown to the way it's packaged. Imagine the boon to a hungry world!
Here are just a few:
- Pesticides could be nano-encapulated, so they release only in the stomach of an insect, protecting people and the environment
- Theres work on nanoparticle additives that can signal when food is contaminated.
- Researchers are developing nano-scale vitamins that can be added to food - without changing the taste or other attributes of it.
- You may find zinc particles in plastic packaging to block destructive UV rays.
- Theyve even begun development of a nanofilm for vegetables that emits a chemical vapor to extend shelf-life up to 21 days.
I hope you enjoyed our nanotechnology picnic. Better than that, I hope it's whetted your appetite for more.
Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd.