AMSTERDAM — A future where food packaging is more sustainable – and no longer contains aluminum – has moved a step closer, thanks to a major breakthrough in ongoing research involving AkzoNobel. PhD student Jiaying Li has made an important discovery in the area of food packaging. Li is working with the Dutch Advanced Research Center Chemical Building Blocks Consortium (ARC CBBC), in collaboration with the University of Twente, Wageningen University, BASF and AkzoNobel. The research is focused on a new, recyclable coating to replace the type of “metallized” packaging, which blocks out oxygen, that is typically used for products such as potato chips and coffee.

Currently, this sort of packaging consists of several layers, each with its own function. As well as requiring a lot of energy to produce, it is also difficult to recycle. A process has now been devised that involves the smart combination of two water-soluble polymers (polyelectrolytes), resulting in all the functionality being delivered by one recyclable layer.

“The use of polyelectrolytes in the coatings industry is not new,” explained Andre van Linden, AkzoNobel’s Director of Coatings Technology. “But these coatings are normally built up step by step, so industrialization of this method would be too complex, time consuming, expensive and impractical. However, the new one-step approach that’s being developed through the ARC CBBC means the use of polyelectrolytes is much closer to becoming industrialized.”

Li, a PhD student at the University of Twente, added, “Our initial results show that the coating has great potential for future use in packaging to protect food from oxidation. We’re also focusing on improving other properties, such as water resistance and strength.”

As a leading supplier of packaging coatings, the research is of obvious interest to AkzoNobel, especially the sustainability and customer benefits that the new coating could offer. No organic solvents are used, and the packaging would be easy to recycle. The next step in the research is to use bio-derived polyelectrolytes. These polyelectrolytes are 100% natural, extracted, for example, from shrimp shells or waste from the wood processing industry.

“With the versatility of natural polyelectrolytes, we’re entering the era of becoming less dependent on synthesized polymers,” continued Li. “In the end, the polyelectrolyte coating we’re developing might be less shiny, but it will serve the same purpose and make recycling much easier.”