Developments in nanotechnology have significant implications for drinks manufacturers. Mark Rowe reports on how nanotechnology could revolutionise the way drinks are flavoured and coloured, as well as offering new solutions in packaging and hygiene.

Nanotechnology, though in its infancy, is already having an influential bearing on the international drinks market. According to a study by consultant Helmut Kaiser, latest available figures indicate that worldwide sales of nanotechnology products to the food and beverage packaging sector jumped to US$860m in 2004 from US$150m in 2002.

One of the critical benefits, the report suggests, is that nanoparticles have the capability to break open upon command, something that could lead to smart, programmable foods and drinks.

In the US, the NanoTek Consortium, a US-based group of 15 universities and companies, has been set up with the remit of applying nanotechnology to improve the drinks and food industry.

One of the companies, Dinsmore, has proposed using specific frequencies of ultrasound or microwaves to "pop" nanoparticles containing specific aromas, flavours or dyes, so food makers could programme a drink to be any colour or taste desired.

The Good Foods project, a European Union (EU)-funded research project, has developed micro and nanotechnology portable devices to swiftly detect toxins, pathogens and chemicals in drinks. The project is developing tiny biomechanical and microelectronic sensors that can be used to screen for virtually any pathogen or toxin in any liquid product. The project partners are focusing their research on quality and safety analysis for milk and wine.

The scientists are developing a device based on a fluorescent optical biosensor that measures the reaction of a probe, coated with antibodies, when it comes into contact with antibiotics present in milk. Cost benefits and accuracy would also result if a microelectronic device is used to detect pathogens such as listeria bacteria in milk. A similar device could equally be utilised to detect corkage in wine.

In April, the Institute of Nanotechnology, based at Stirling University, advertised for nano-based scientists to contact them to work with what it described as "one of the world's largest premium drinks companies". The unnamed company, said the advert, was looking for research that could be applied both in the short and medium-term to "functional barrier materials and packaging" and "nanowidgets".

"The company wants to look at issues such as selective gas transfer, the release of freshness compounds from the pack material over time, and the stripping out of degradation compounds over time," said a spokesman for the Institute. "There is potential for nanotech to lead to increased freshness and taste; lighter bottles - which mean less transport costs - and shaping bottles more effectively with plastic compared to glass and metal and still portraying the premium quality to consumer."

The company is also understood to be interested in nanocoatings for whisky and rum casks that decrease natural wastage, while the potential for nanowidgets focuses on specific properties related to the gas encapsulated within the widget and engineering the external surface of the widget to provide a site for nucleation. The potential benefits of nanowidgets include prolonged bubble release and potential cost savings.

The bottles that drinks come in may also be the subject of nanopackaging techniques. One of the more eyebrow-raising innovations - though, alas, still at the design stage - is that of the plastic bottle that degrades when it is empty. "It might work with a sensor that can monitor moisture content and tell the bottle that is empty," said Del Stark, chief executive of the European Nanotechnology Trade Alliance.

All major drinks companies are understood to be enquiring about nanotechnology, or initiating their own nanotech-related R&D departments. 

However, it is hardly surprising to find major corporations, such as Nestlé, keeping their cards close to their chests. "Like every technology breakthrough, nanotechnology could have some very important implications for our sector," said a spokesman. "We have no intention of telegraphing our intentions to competitors."

Useful links for further information on nanotechnology:

Helmut Kaiser Consultancy: www.hkc22.com
Institute of Nanotechnology, Stirling University: http://www.nano.org.uk
European Nanotechnology Trade Alliance: www.euronanotrade.com