Nanotechnology and the Future of Food by Dr. Marietta Loehrlein
Four out of five people who have heard of nanotechnology think of medicine or computers when they hear the term. That’s what I thought of before I attended a talk given by the USDAs Hongda Chen last month, titled “An overview of nanotechnology and its potential applications in horticultural systems”. For those persons who haven’t heard of nanotechnology, you might be interested in knowing that the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture website defines it as “The science of studying and producing materials and devices of nanometer size–about the size of a small molecule or individual atom.”
Possibly the most exciting technological development in nanotechnology is a photovoltaic cell that uses photosynthesis to generate electricity. The first solar photovoltaic chip was made using ground-up spinach tissue by scientist Shuguang Zhang at MIT. He was building on work by a group of researchers who had earlier figured out how to harness energy from a plant. That group was able to extract electrical current using a plant’s photosynthesis for a period of three weeks. Zhang’s chip converted approximately 12% of the light energy absorbed to electrical current. This compares to the 24% efficiency of silicon power cells. In the future, it is hoped that by adding layers of chips, efficiency will be increased to 20%. Oh, and the size of this photosynthetic solar chip? Ten to twenty nanometers or, small enough to fit about a hundred of them in the width of a human hair. If this technology pans out, think how lightweight our computers and other electronic devices may become, not to mention more environmentally friendly.
There are lots of other applications of nanotechnology in agriculture and horticulture that are being researched or are already developed. Some examples are polymer coatings for greenhouses that resist mold and fungus growth while providing thermal insulation, films for food packaging that kill harmful microbes, and color-indicator oxygen sensors that could serve as labels on food packaging, designed to reveal when produce or meat is going bad. The last example still has some kinks to work out, but expect to see some of these breakthroughs in the coming months and years, along with numerous other applications. (The greenhouse film, “Nansulate Greenhouse”, is already on the market).
In the words of Errol Hewett, of Massey University in New Zealand, and Pietro Tonuti of Sant’Anna School in Italy, “Nanotechnology is an enabling technology with the potential to revolutionize plant and food systems”. If the estimated $20 billion nanotech food market for this year is any indication, certainly it is safe to say that the future of food nanotechnology is already here.