Michigan Technological University scientist Jaroslaw Drelich has discovered how to embed nanoparticles of copper into vermiculite, used as filler in plastics, paints and fireproof materials.
Copper has been known for its antibiotic properties but the embedded nanoparticles ensure a high surface area compared to volume and other studies have shown that copper is toxic to listeria, salmonella and MRSA.
The copper-vermiculite material mixes with other materials, like cardboard and plastic, so it could be used in packing beads, boxes and cellulose-based egg cartons.
Because the copper is in metallic form, the amount released is expected to be very small, rendering substances safe.
Drelich, a professor of materials science and engineering, told us that they had conducted a number of tests to protocols in laboratories to test the material.
“It can help reduce listeria and E.coli in US vegetable and fruit packed in paperboard moulded trays and could make antimicrobial packaging and prevent the spread of the bacteria.”
He added that they hadn’t had the opportunity to test for different strains of E.coli but this was something that could be done in the future.
The product could be produced as beads in direct contact with the packaging but not the food or as a filler in the structure of cellulose-based packaging, which is a method that is currently being tested.
In tests on local lake water, it killed 100% of E.coli bacteria in the sample and it was effective in killing Staphylococcus aureus.
Drelich added that it would take minutes to hours to kill the organisms but this could be done during the transportation of food.
He added that because it costs 25 cents per pound it would be an inexpensive way to improve the safety of the food supply, especially fruits and vegetables.
Drelich is working with the Michigan Tech SmartZone to commercialize the product through his business, Micro Techno Solutions.
He expects to further test the material and eventually license it to companies that pack fresh food, adding that it can be easily put into the production process and there would be enough supply to cope with potential commercialization.
“In recent years there has been an increase in the market for anti-microbial materials as they give the opportunity for a safe type of product.
“We could start commercialization relatively easily in a few months as we are ready to go for a number of applications and one of those could be packaging materials.”
The initial research can be found HERE.