Dr Declan Diver and Dr Hugh Potts of the university’s School of Physics and Astronomy have prototyped a revolutionary system to rapidly, safely and temporarily turn some naturally occurring oxygen inside sealed food packaging into ozone, testing it on poultry products.
It works this way: plasma generated by a retractable device held briefly against the surface of plastic or glass packaging splits bonds between oxygen molecules (O2) inside the packaging, and these recombine as ozone (O3).
The ozone spontaneously returns to its original state (O2) after a couple of hours, but this is more than enough time for any mould, fungi or bacteria on the meat contents to be destroyed without adversely affecting taste, the academics explained.
Ozone’s effectiveness as a germicide extends food’s shelf-life by at least one extra day, a potentially major economic gain. This, said the inventors, could go “a significant way to cutting down on the seven million tonnes of food discarded in the United Kingdom each year”.
A prototype system has already been proven at leading test laboratories including Campden BRI, the UK's largest independent membership-based organisation carrying out research and development for the food and drinks industry worldwide.
Tests showed a significant reduction in many pathogenic micro-organisms in poultry including Campylobacter, Pseudomonas, and E.coli, which are all regarded as anathema by the industry.
The product is in the process of being brought to market by a university spinout company called Anacail which recently raised £750,000 in seed funding from leading technology commercialisation company the IP Group (London, UK), and the Scottish Investment Bank, a division of Scottish Enterprise, the Glasgow based state development agency for Scotland.
Half of this funding is contingent on Anacail achieving certain technical and commercial milestones and the company is now reaching out to the food industry to speed the technology through to market.
“We’re currently seeking development partners to scale our product into full manufacture,” Anacail chief executive officer Dr Ian Muirhead said.
“Although we’re initially concentrating on offering Anacail products to the food industry, the process could be equally useful in for the sterilisation of medical and dental equipment and perhaps even for use in the home.”
He added: “We’re very excited about the applications. It’s safe and easy to use, doesn’t require any change in current packaging of food products to be effective, and it doesn’t require any chemical additives - the sterilisation effect comes directly from oxygen.”
Addressing points about safety, Muirhead explained that while ozone can be harmful to humans, it has a very limited lifespan before it reverts to oxygen and does not leave behind any dangerous residues, so is deemed safe to use in food decontamination as a highly effective way to destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses.
Aptly, Anacail is verb for ‘shield’, ‘preserve’ or ‘protect’ in Scotland’s minority language, Gaelic.