Smart Paper

Diatomites on paper
Imagine packaging that tells a retailer or customer that food is spoiling. Even better, imagine packaging that tells the retailer the contents are tainted by Salmonella, E. Coli or Listeria.

This packaging material exists, developed by an AUFSI partner, the Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering. The inventor, Dr. Marko Hakovirta, is seeking a patent for the paper, which can change color to indicate the presence of bacteria, pesticides or the ammonia that meat emits when it starts to spoil.

Best of all, the paper is inexpensive, because a common material—diatomaceous earth—is used as a platform for nanoparticles that detect contamination. Enzymes are embedded in the diatomaceous earth, which is used to coat packaging materials.

Because it consists of the skeletons of tiny sea creatures, diatomaceous earth has a great deal of surface area, making an ideal platform for sensors. Nanomaterials can cost thousands of dollars a pound, but this “nature-made” version costs less than $1 a pound.

This packaging material is so flexible and so inexpensive that Dr. Hakovirta is investigating other uses. Diatomaceous earth is already used for safe, organic pest control, and this new technology allows the material to be embedded on the surface of paper. Why not use it in shipping containers so pests don’t get transported inadvertently to foodservice operations?

Dr. Hakovirta is working with an entomologist, a horticulturist and a food safety expert to seek funding to test their idea.