Professors Yulan Ding and Malcolm Povey and PhD candidate Lingling Zhang are confident that nanoparticles of zinc oxide and magnesium oxide have been shown to be effective in killing microorganisms.
This could provide a cheap, safe alternative to nano-sized silver, which has good antimicrobial properties, but is expensive and as a heavy metal, is not suitable for human contact.
Nanotechnology involves the study and use of materials at an extremely small scale - at sizes of millionths of a millimetre - and exploit the fact that some materials have different properties at this ultra small scale from those at a larger scale. One nanometer is the same as one millionth of a millimetre.
The new nanocomposites developed by Ding and his team are assemblies of functionalised nanoparticles, hundreds of micrometres in size, capable of disintegrating in liquid into nanoparticles that attach to and kill microorganisms.
Many scientists believe that such discoveries are pointing the way to what packaging will be like in the future. The Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research at the Norwegian Institute of Technology (SINTEF) for example is already using nanotechnology to create small particles in the film and improve the transportation of some gases through the plastic film to pump out dirty air such as carbon dioxide.
It is hoped that the concept could be used to block out harmful gases that shorten the shelf life of food. SINTEF scientists are looking at whether the film could also provide barrier protection and prevent gases such as oxygen and ethylene from deteriorating food.
Likewise, the team at the University of Leeds is hopeful that nanoparticle zinc oxide and magnesium oxide could provide safe and affordable food packaging in the not-too-distant future. According to packaging consultancy Pira, the team plans to incorporate effective antimicrobial nanoparticles into packaging materials as research progresses.
Incredibly, the team at the University of Leeds' Nanomanufacturing Institute in the UK are just six months into a three-year project, and official results are not expected for at least another three months.
Much of this technology will require years of further development before it can be used commercially, but advancements in computer technology could provide a short cut. Computers are constantly becoming more powerful and capable of conducting more detailed explorations, and at the same time, scientists across the globe are increasingly becoming interested in the potential of nanotechnology.
It is the intersection of these two trends that is allowing scientists such as Ding, Povey and Zhang to investigate realms that are too small for today's technology to explore experimentally.
The US nanomaterial market alone, which totalled only $125 million in 2000, is expected to reach $1.4 billion in 2008 and exceed $30 billion by 2020, according to Nanomaterials, a study from the Freedonia Group.