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Eating small: applications and implications for nanotechnology in agriculture and the food industry

Posted on 30. June, 2014.

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Synthesis by direct manipulation of atoms was suggested by Richard Feynman in 1959, although the term "nano-technology" was not coined until 1974 by Norio Taniguchi.

The ground-breaking invention, in 1981, of the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) demonstrated that individual atoms could be visualised, and the technology was further developed to physically move adsorbed atoms and molecules around on the surface. Noteable examples demonstrated for publicity purposes are the sign-writing of IBM using 35 xenon atoms on a Ni(110) surface.

The tunnelling electrons may also be used to initiate chemical reactions, the products of which can be subsequently manipulated over the surface, so providing proof of chemical change having occured.

As a definition, nanotechnology (nanotech) can be described as the manipulation of matter over an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular dimension. Molecular nanotechnology is the intention of manipulating atoms and molecules, so to create macroscale products.

It may be that nanotechnology can provide advances in medicine, electronics, biomaterials, energy production and, as is the subject of this article, in agriculture and more broadly in the food industry.
On the other hand, nanotechnology raises many of those same issues as when any new technology is inaugurated, e.g. concerns about the toxicity and environmental impact of nanomaterials, and their potential effects on global economics, in addition to speculation over potential doomsday scenarios (“grey goo”), most emphatically dramatised by the late Michael Crichton in his novel Prey.

According to the researchers and stakeholders, revolutionary advances can be anticipated during the next 10 – 15 years, principally through a convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology and agricultural and environmental sciences, of which the following have been listed:

  • development of nanotechnology-based foods with lower calories and less fat, salt, and sugar while retaining flavour and texture;

  • nanoscale vehicles for effective delivery of micronutrients and sensitive bioactives;

  • re-engineering of crops, animals, and microbes at the genetic and cellular level;

  • nanobiosensors for detection of pathogens, toxins, and bacteria in foods;

  • identification systems for tracking animal and plant materials from origination to consumption;

  • integrated systems for sensing, monitoring, and active response intervention for plant and animal production;

  • smart field systems to detect, locate, report, and direct application of water;

  • precision and controlled release of fertilisers and pesticides;

  • development of plants that exhibit drought resistance and tolerance to salt and excess moisture; and

  • nanoscale films for food packaging and contact materials that extend shelf life, retain quality, and reduce cooling requirements.

Read the full article, free of charge, in Science Progress, Volume 97, Number 2, pp. 173-182.

Author: Christopher J.Rhodes


Image: Space filling model of β‑cyclodextrin. Eugenol, which is present in “oil of cloves”, is a popular preservative in the food industry, with antibacterial, antifungal and antioxidant properties. Normally, eugenol is relatively sensitive to oxygen heat and light, which tend to degrade it, when encapsulated as an inclusion complex in cyclodextrin it is much more stable.