It seems that even the most basic things in life are becoming more sophisticated, but this is not always a bad thing. Food packaging, which we often take for granted, today is a much more “engineered” product than most people imagine. After all, the name of the game is to preserve food freshness while simultaneously heightening our desire to buy that particular product from myriad other choices on the shelf.
In some countries, such as Japan, consumers don’t want flowery packaging, but rather the ability to see the food itself, unhindered by printed text, color schemes or even the barrier films that protect it. Solution: clear barrier packaging that preserve freshness while enabling consumers to see directly through it. This is the fundamental premise behind the announcement from Fraunhofer FEP in Dresden, which developed an excellent clear film technology for a wide variety of transparent food packaging. Clear barriers like this will allow us to enjoy a wider variety of snacks without any worries about unpleasant, and unseen, surprises inside the packaging.
Traditionally, food packaging uses a thin layer of aluminum as the primary “freshness” barrier, which is deposited onto a plastic material and then laminated to another printed plastic material to form the packaging structure. This thin aluminum provides a better oxygen and water barrier then the much thicker plastic surrounding it. It is the standard production process for flexible barrier packaging and is being manufactured using Applied Materials’ TopMet vacuum roll coating system.
As the industry matured, consumers wanted more transparent barriers, which were achievable with a more sophisticated production process using our TopBeam Electron Beam deposition tools. Electron beam evaporation is required to deposit the high temperature refractory layers, such as AlOx and SiOx, which are not as easily deposited by simple thermal evaporation. While the electron beam process is still well suited to certain applications, it does not hit the right price point to massively shift the market to a thin film solution.
With Applied’s TopMet Clear platform, which can be configured with either a simple AlOx process for PET packaging, or with the new Fraunhofer FEP advanced AlOx process for a wider range of packaging materials, the industry now has a path to excellent transparent barriers without the same dependence on complex polymers as seen today. This means that future transparent packaging can solve a number of ecological issues related to more traditional materials: the thin AlOx layers can replace a significant volume of polymers to achieve the same barrier performance; the AlOx layers can be used more effectively in conjunction with biodegradable materials, such as polylactic acid (PLA), and the layers themselves are so thin (only 5~20 nanometers thick), they pose no recyclability issues and help conserve resources.
Thus, as these advanced technologies find themselves integrated into food packaging, we find ourselves, and our planet, benefiting in numerous ways from the capabilities of these technologies . . . and in most cases, this progress is truly transparent to the consumer.