Virginia Tech scientists have created a super slippery industrial packaging solution to do away with food waste.
Almost everyone who eats fast food is familiar with the frustration of trying to squeeze every last drop of ketchup out of the small packets that accompany french fries.
What most consumers don’t realize, however, is that food left behind in plastic packaging contribute to millions of pounds of perfectly edible food that Americans throw out every year.
New research from Virginia Tech has established a method for wicking chemically compatible vegetable oils into the surfaces of common extruded plastics.
Not only will the technique help sticky foods release from their packaging much more easily, but for the first time, it can also be applied to inexpensive and readily available plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene, reports its creators.
These hydrocarbon-based polymers make up 55% of the total demand for plastics in the world today, meaning potential applications for the research stretch far beyond just ketchup packets.
“Previous SLIPS, or slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces, have been made using silicon- or fluorine-based polymers, which are very expensive,” said Ranit Mukherjee, a doctoral student and the study’s lead author. “But we can make our SLIPS out of these hydrocarbon-based polymers, which are widely applicable to everyday packaged products.”
First created by Harvard University researchers in 2011, SLIPS are porous surfaces or absorbent polymers that can hold a chemically compatible oil within their surfaces via the process of wicking.
Current SLIPS however aren’t attractive for industrial applications due to their high cost, while the method of adding roughness to surfaces can likewise be an expensive and complicated process.
“We had two big breakthroughs,” said assistant professor and a study co-author, Jonathan Boreyko. “Not only are we using these hydrocarbon-based polymers that are cheap and in high demand, but we don’t have to add any surface roughness, either. We actually found oils that are naturally compatible with the plastics, so these oils are wicking into the plastic itself, not into a roughness we have to apply.”
The technique was inspired by the roots of the carnivorous pitcher plant that entices insects to the edge of a deep cavity filled with nectar and digestive enzymes.
Image credits and content: Virginia Tech