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Packaging applications for hydrophobic surfaces

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ScienceDaily.com recently reported that engineers at the University of Florida have achieved a near perfect hydrophobic surface by looking at the physical structures of spider hair, and duplicating them mechanically. This approach differs from similar approaches in the past which tried to achieve the same results through material composition, not mechanical properties.

Hydrophobic surfaces are often seen in nature as evolutionary survival responses in frogs and spiders. These surfaces do not get wet. Instead, water curves around them. The breakthrough here is indeed making this possible through mechanical properties, which may make it applicable to packaging.

Basic Needs of a Package

The article states that water rolling off of a surface can make the surface self-cleaning. This can make food packaging a potential application for hydrophobic surfaces.

Is there an application in packaging materials, such as PET, or carton? The key question here is, is a food packaging material that carries away dirt an ideal packaging material? Usually, for food packaging materials, characteristics such as barrier properties (light, oxygen, etc.), and physical characteristics like robustness address key needs. These are the basic deliverables of a package, which are about protecting the food that is packaged. The basic deliverables are must-haves. It goes without saying that a package that can not protect the food it packs is not an acceptable package.

Consumer Differentiators

Consumer differentiators in packaging address previously unaddressed consumer needs going above and beyond the basic needs and deliverables. An easier opening, sensory or visual elements that improve attractiveness are typical examples of these.

Open questions for the Benefits of a Hydrophobic Surface

Is there a basic unaddressed need for a packaging material that cleans itself? Is that an advantage, or a disadvantage? If a packaging material cleans itself by getting rid off dirt, where does that dirt end up?

Our Conclusion

While we are intrigued by this technical achievement, we are not sure whether this offers true consumer benefits, or addresses needs that are previously unaddressed. There are three potential areas of application, recognizing that we have a solution looking for a problem:

  • It may have benefits in B2B environments, such as keeping packaging material cleaner prior to packing. However, packaging is a very cost sensitive field, especially considering that volume can be in the hundred of billions range, per annum.
  • It may have applications in secondary materials in food packaging, such as straws and openings. If the food can not cling to it, it can not dry and cake especially with openings on cartons. This is a problem especially with milk packages.
  • It may potentially help keeping on-the-go drinks cooler longer, if applied to the outside of the package. Sweating, or water dew forming on cold drinks in hot and humid environments (i.e. summer) are one of the factors that cool them down faster.

Of these three, we do think that the best application is indeed in secondary materials, in particular in carton openings. If there is no dried milk around milk package opening, then there is measurable consumer value.

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