Greener Microwavable Food Packaging

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Active food packaging is a steadily growing segment, with a market expected to reach $285 million by 2020 in the United States alone.

The demand for such products creates new market opportunities for paper and board producers and FPInnovations is working with its members and their customers/partners to grab a sizable market share.

Thus, from a research project on printed electronics focusing on printing conductive inks on cellulose-based substrates, FPInnovations' Paper, Packaging and Consumer Products group has developed an application for paper packaging with printed susceptors.

Aimed at improving cooking performance in a microwave oven, susceptors are heating components that react to microwaves and control the heating rate to make food such as popcorn and frozen pizza crispy. Today's commercial susceptors are made of metallized plastic films, but exploring options that do not rely on petroleum-based plastic or metal was becoming attractive, particularly with the increased concern about environment and sustainability.

"We based our approach on the fact that ink can be printed on paper to modify the paper properties", said Lyne Cormier, Research leader of the project. The team therefore focused on developing a susceptor using conductive carbon ink on cellulose-based substrates, both of which are compostable components. "The printed susceptor concept is not new as it has been patented more than 20 years ago. However it was not commercialized due to performance issues", said Dr. Cormier.

Initial experiments were performed in FPInnovations laboratories, to identify an ink formulation and the printing patterns that would match or exceed the performance of existing susceptors. The laboratory work led to a patent application and a product prototype for popcorn bags. "We then had to confirm whether or not satisfactory results on a few samples were the same on a larger scale", said Dr. Cormier. The technology was therefore successfully tested on a commercial press at the Printability and Graphic Communications Institute (ICI) in Montreal. The large number of samples produced enabled to do a full evaluation that confirmed product uniformity and consistent performance. The team has also initiated testing to ensure the printed susceptor meets the FDA requirements, which is very important for food packaging.

FPInnovations will move on with the commercial demonstrations in converting plants, and is seeking research alliance partnerships. The process will be used to validate the reduction in production costs and other benefits compared to manufacturing traditional susceptors.

FPInnovations' paper-based approach, contrary to susceptors usually made of metal or petroleum-based plastic, is a significant step toward a fully-compostable product, while providing the paper sector with new opportunities. The patent-pending technology also provides a cost-effective and potentially simpler alternative to existing susceptors as they can be added during printing.