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Nanomaterials May 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles in Food

Why is this topic significant?

The use of nanomaterials in food products is a highly controversial topic. A major food manufacturer's ceasing to use nanomaterials in its products could have major knock-on effects for the industry as a whole.

Description

In March 2015, Dunkin' Brands—the parent company of Dunkin' Donuts—announced that it plans to remove titanium dioxide nanoparticles from all powdered sugar in its products. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles—the active ingredient in many sunscreens—find use as a white pigment in a variety of products, including paint, paper, plastics, and some foodstuffs. The move from Dunkin' Brands comes after pressure from As You Sow—a nonprofit organization that aims "to promote environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies."

In February 2015, the Network for Risk Assessment of Nanotechnologies in Food and Feed—a working group of the European Food Safety Authority—published a report discussing the use of nanomaterials in food. The report highlights the use of titanium dioxide nanoparticles, stating, "The type of nanomaterials that are now occurring in the food/feed chain are mainly titanium dioxide and synthetic amorphous silica. The evidence bases for oral toxicity and for conducting comprehensive risk assessments of these two materials is building up, but more research remains needed." For more details on the use of nanomaterials in the food industry, see the March 2014 Viewpoints.

Implications

The removal of titanium dioxide nanoparticles from Dunkin' Brands' products could have widespread implications for the notoriously conservative food industry, placing additional pressure on competing brands to follow suit. The move demonstrates that pressure from advocacy groups can prove highly effective—even in cases in which scant evidence exists. By succumbing to this pressure, Dunkin' Brands is effectively indicating that it believes any cosmetic benefits of using titanium dioxide nanoparticles are not worth the negative publicity that continuing with unchanged formulations could generate. This better-safe-than-sorry-approach is wise, especially given the negative implications of having a food product associated with safety concerns. However, given the dearth of conclusive evidence that ingesting nanoscale titanium dioxide nanoparticles can cause any harm, Dunkin' Brands is clearly following this course of action more because of concern for consumer and investor confidence than as a result of any anxiety about the safety of its products. The development also raises questions related to the utility of including nanoparticle additives in foodstuffs where no preservative or nutritional benefits are discernible. If only cosmetic benefits arise, are these effects achievable using alternative methods that prompt no safety concerns?

Impacts/Disruptions

The public perception of safety is extremely important in the food industry. More rigorous and specific testing programs for nanomaterials alongside enhanced cooperation between governments and key industrial partners will prove necessary for further development within this sector. Nanomaterials in food pose a threat that everyone must fully understand. However, with correct use, these materials could also offer health advantages and result in lucrative business opportunities.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Food, cosmetics, materials, pigmentation

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Graphene Developments at 2-DTech

Why is this topic significant?

Graphene will play a major role in several industrial sectors in the coming decades. Companies such as 2-DTech are likely to be at the forefront of this commercialization process.

Description

2-DTech describes itself as a "partner company to help industry benefit from graphene's potential to revolutionise products and technologies." The company—originally a spinout from the University of Manchester but now a subsidiary of the advanced-materials firm Versarian—is at the forefront of graphene commercialization and is in the process of developing several diverse graphene-based applications. Some recent developments:

  • In December 2014, 2-DTech announced details of its 12-month collaboration with Dyesol, the Australian solar-energy company. The research aims to integrate graphene into dye-sensitized solar cells in order to enhance the efficiency of charge collection within photovoltaic systems.
  • In February 2015, 2-DTech revealed details of its research into the application of graphene in high-performance corrosion-inhibiting coatings. The work—partially funded by Innovate UK—makes use of the extremely low permeability of graphene to create effective anticorrosion coatings.
  • In March 2015, researchers at 2-DTech publicized preliminary research into the use of graphene for composite-material applications—particularly for use in dental prostheses and medical implants. Working in collaboration with Evodental (a company specializing in dental implants), 2-DTech is incorporating graphene into organic thermoplastic polymers that exhibit high strength and good biocompatibility. The graphene-polymer composites should exhibit "markedly increased longevity and improved clinical function."

Implications

2-DTech is working on a diverse range of graphene-based applications. These applications could result in more efficient photovoltaic systems that enable solar power to contribute to national grids' larger proportions of the energy generated in the systems, to anticorrosion coatings that protect sensitive electronic equipment in harsh environments, or to high-strength dental implants. 2-DTech cannot guarantee the success of any of these ventures. However, by developing such a variety of distinct applications and working in collaboration with leading figures from a number of industries, 2-DTech is increasing its chances of involvement in a "killer app" that could spur further commercialization of graphene.

Impacts/Disruptions

Graphene is set to make a major impact—both financial and technological—on many industrial sectors. The three examples of 2-DTech's research represent just a small portion of the many lucrative business opportunities that are currently under investigation. However, before graphene applications begin to see more widespread commercialization, leading industry figures in the field must overcome challenges related to scalable and cost-efficient manufacturing processes. Despite graphene's impressive mechanical, electrical, and thermal properties, it will face stiff competition from alternative advanced materials and technologies. For instance, the market for silicon-based photovoltaics is already relatively mature, and—as a result—dye-sensitized solar cells that incorporate graphene could struggle to make any significant headway. Ultimately, performance and cost will determine the commercial success of graphene in each of the diverse applications for which researchers currently propose its use. Major breakthrough applications for graphene are likely to include transparent conductive films and electrode materials in energy-storage systems.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Batteries, health care, energy, composites, electronics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: