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New nanoclay additives pack big, and functional, punch

If you've paid attention to the additives market through the years, then you've heard of nanoclays, and probably wrote them off as a small-scale niche product about 10 years ago. But a supplier out of Valencia, Spain says its use of different types of clays and its ability to add functionality to the nanoparticles means these additives' best days are still ahead of them.

Presentations on nanoclays were a standard of plastic packaging conferences in the late 1990s. The potential of these materials was heralded especially in the blowmolding industry, where processors heard that nanoclays could be added to PET to create a "torturous path" through which CO2 could not escape and oxygen would not penetrate.  But much of the hype focused on one type of nanoclay platelet, MMT (montmorillonite), and some of these never received food-contact approval. As a result of this, and because the cost/benefits weren't powerful enough to push aside more conventional barrier materials, nanoclays have remained a minor niche additive.

The Spanish supplier NanoBioMatters hopes to change that. "We want to be a force to be reckoned with in food packaging," says Ole Faarbaek, the company's VP business development. The company, based in Valencia and formed five years ago, is closing its first commercial year next month with 2010 sales of about €4 million, so it still has plenty of room to grow. But he said the firm's presence at the K show in Düsseldorf, Germany from Oct.27-Nov. 3 proved interest in what it offers is high, with hundreds of processors, compounders, and food-and-beverage brand owners finding their way to the company's stand.

What exactly does it offer? Nanoclay additives that don't just block gases but also can actively scavenge oxygen, for one. This material, dubbed O2Block, was introduced during the K show. Other products include nanoclay additives that can serve as antioxidants or antimicrobials. "MMT clays have been in use for about 15 years, but many of these lack food contact approval.... We work with five, six types of clays. This gives us a broader toolbox with the use of clays, and especially for food packaging," he explained. Critical to his company's success is its ability to add functionality to the clays it uses, he said. The company introduced its antimicrobial nanoclay additive at the NPE tradeshow in June 2009. 

NanoBioMatters has an exclusive relationship with ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) supplier Nippon Gohsei to supply nanoclay platelets that can be added to that supplier's EVOH to create the new O2Block oxygen scavengers. EVOH has long been used as a passive gas barrier material; adding the nanoclay gives it an active aspect and about doubles the effect of the barrier, said Faarbaek. And unlike some earlier nanoclay projects, "W don't need a perfectly oriented system to achieve the positive effects," he said. The additive is still in a development stage but customers are doing shelf-life tests. With this material, predicts Faarbaek, "We can really dramatically change the shelf life of fatty meats, for example."

NBM now has about 32 employees, two of them in an office in Boston. On the R&D drawing board are new nanoclays that also include biological extracts, which will add even more functions and aspects to the nanoclay platelets, said Faarbaek.  

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