Bright IDEAS Award: Intelligent pigments and plastics

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Chemistry and Chemical Eng


Plastic packaging is a global industry associated with many products, none bigger than food, drink and medical packaging. Most food and drink and a great number of medicines and medical appliances are sealed under a modified atmosphere (MA) - usually inert - in order to preserve the state of the product. Oxygen spoils such products not only by direct oxidation but also by encouraging growth of aerobic spoilage microbes. Other potentially spoilage analytes/operational parameters include: water vapour (e.g. for dry foods and electronic goods), improper refrigeration and exposure to solar UV; all can lead to rapid product deterioration (e.g. in foods, drinks and vaccines). When many foods spoil detectable volatile species are often emitted. There is no 100% quality control for such packaging, nor any current technology that can inexpensively transform current packaging to rendered it self-diagnostic in terms of package integrity and product quality. As a consequence food waste is significant. This project will generate a new era of plastic packaging - smart, diagnostic plastics - which will be wholly of partly (as a patch) incorporated into the package and be readily incorporated into existing plastic packaging manufacture methods. In addition to transforming QA in MA packaging (total of over 50 billion units pa), other obvious products which will arise from this work include: (i) spoilt food indicating cling film, (ii) 'consume within' indicating packaging for refrigerated, OPENED food, (iii) tamper-evidence packaging, (iv) incorrect refrigeration packaging. This novel approach has the potential to transform the packaging industry.

Planned Impact

On the industry side, food and medical packagers and associated industries will benefit from this significant development in smart packaging by ultimately selling more product and improving the level of QA. The technology will produce a step change in packaged food and medical management and the minimisation of waste in the industries as well as in the household. A major driver for the commercialisation of this technology is the reduction of household food waste, which is at an unacceptable and unsustainable level in all modern countries. This technology will benefit the consumer enormously by making it possible to identify opened and un-opened, packaged food that is still fresh and safe to eat. This will lead to a great reduction in food waste and considerable financial savings for each household. A significant reduction in waste food will lead to dramatic reductions in energy consumption, global warming and landfill pollution and, as a consequence, one of the biggest beneficiaries will be the Environment. The associated existing, and to be generated, IPR associated with the intelligent pigment and plastics technology is, and will be, owned by the University and, as a consequence, given the global nature of the product, will create long-term wealth and jobs for the UK. This project will either lead to a spin out company or product licensing which will create commercial products in the global market within 3-5 years and the simple, inexpensive nature of this technology means that it will generate taxable revenue on a large scale very fast. A significant part of the project's travel funds are to facilitate presentations to members of the food and medical packaging industries to promote the technology either individually or at international conferences; presentations to the public are also envisaged via press articles and media presentations. Articles will be written in trade magazines as well as academic journals. More significantly, those working on the project - including all eventual relevant industrial collaborators - will engage with the public by publicising the technology. The PI, Professor Mills, has a significant, successful track record in commercialising intelligent inks, including: (i) inventing the SmartPak CO2 indicator promoted by Sealed Air FDP and (ii) in the process of spinning out two companies, The Intelligent Ink & Pen Co. and Solar Healthcare.


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Description smart pigments embedded into plastics create smart plastics able to provide a visual indication of analytes of interest to the food packaging industry, such as CO2 and O2
Exploitation Route patent generated leading to license and company spin out
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink

Description Patent generated which has been licensed
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Economic

Title Intelligent pigments and plastics 
Description A chemical indicator comprises a particulate inorganic substrate, and at least one reactive dye or ink coated on and/or impregnated within the particulate inorganic substrate. Coating and/or impregnating at least one reactive dye or ink on or within a particulate inorganic substrate improves the storage stability and/or thermal stability of the at least one reactive dye or ink, which typically comprises relatively unstable compounds. This allows the present indicators to be incorporated into thermoplastic polymer materials and processed conventionally while maintaining the efficacy and stability of the new indicators. The indicators provide simple, reliable, and cost effective detection means for detecting analytes such as ammonia, carbon dioxide, and oxygen, and may find use in applications such as food packaging and medical applications. 
IP Reference AU2010308169 
Protection Patent granted
Year Protection Granted 2012
Licensed Yes
Impact spin out of Insignia Technologies
Title Intelligent pigments and plastics 
Description smart pigments for smart plastics for the food industry 
IP Reference japanese patent no.: 2012-533687 
Protection Patent granted
Year Protection Granted 2012
Licensed Yes
Impact spin out of Insignia Technologies
Company Name Insignia Technologies Ltd 
Description Smart plastics company for the food packaging industry 
Year Established 2011 
Impact Significant research collaboration