New equipment at Nofima makes it easier to make better food packaging. The researchers can make their own materials, and they can manage with much less plastic.

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  Georg Mathisen

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Kloce Dongfang Li and the other scientists at Nofima can now make the packaging materials themselves. “Before, we had to get the materials from our partners. Now we can make them ourselves,” he asserts.

This is important when you want to make packaging films from completely different materials than those used to package food on a daily basis.

“For example, when we want to see if the new materials made from recycled plastic, bio-based materials or new materials with specific functions can be used for food packaging,” he explains.

Mixing materials

This is what it looks like, the thermoformer that allows researchers to try new solutions without needing many metres of films.
The extruder used by Kloce Dongfang Li ensures that he and the other scientists at Nofima can create completely new materials and test them as food packaging. Photo: Georg Mathisen, Nofima

Scientists at Nofima are helping manufacturers find better food packaging. Then they have to try out new materials in practice. Is there anything that is more environmentally friendly than the well-known plastic products, and at the same time protects the food at least as well?

“If we want to test a new idea, we can make materials from, for example, recycled plastics or bio-based materials such as PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoates, a group of polyesters produced in nature by a number of microorganisms such as bacteria) or new materials that encapsulate active components (such as essential oils from plants) that inhibit the growth of bacteria.  or we can mix several materials to see if we can make films with the properties we want,” says Kloce Dongfang Li

Now he and his colleagues can make these materials themselves at the packaging laboratory in Ås. Nofima has invested almost three million kroner in its own extruder.

“This new equipment, a so-called extruder, takes us a step forward towards our goal of promoting sustainable solutions in food packaging.”

In addition to bio-based and recycled plastic solutions, it can be used to mix new additives into packaging.

“When we want to add active components or substances such as essential oils from plants that can inhibit the growth of bacteria in plastic materials to improve properties, we can use the extruder to mix them together in a smooth and controllable way. The extruder is very versatile. It gives us the opportunity to do more targeted research in material development,” says Kloce Dongfang Li.

Testing plastic film

Much cheaper, but also important for researching better packaging, is the other new tool that Nofima, through the strategic program FutureFoodControl, has purchased: a mini thermoformer. Small enough to stand on top of the workbench.

“With this, we can convert flat films into 3D packaging in different shapes such as bowls, package the food products in the new packaging, and then test food quality and shelf life at defined storage times, temperatures and other conditions. This is our core business,” says Kloce Dongfang Li.

Previously, researchers had to use an entire packaging line to conduct such experiments. Then it needed whole rolls of at least 100 meters of film. Now an A4 sheet is enough.

The new thermoformer is particularly useful for testing new and innovative materials such as films of bio-based polymers from the food waste or from the sidestream of food production, or plastic films containing a small amount of special particles that can increase the barrier properties of the materials. These may be plastic films that are not yet available on the market. Kloce and his colleagues are testing whether they can be shaped when heated – and whether they are good enough to make different types of packaging forms.

“It will enable us to help our industry and research partners test their innovative materials for food packaging and can be used to prototype new packaging,” explains Kloce Dongfang Li.

Kloce Dongfang Li has his own “treasure trove” of what can turn into innovative packaging. Photo: Georg Mathisen, Nofima

Packaging researcher

Nofima is working on a number of research projects on food packaging to find the right packaging materials and better packaging methods that can help preserve food for longer.

Nofima conducts research to reduce the environmental impact of food and packaging. Among other things, the researchers are looking at how plastic can be reused and how it is possible to increase the use of recycled material.