LiquiGlide finally hits commercialisation – but food still awaits

The packaging industry’s collective mind was blown back in 2012 when researchers at MIT demonstrated a new coating that let ketchup slide right out of a bottle with ease. Nine years later, the technology, known as LiquiGlide, has finally found a mainstream consumer launch.

Colgate-Palmolive, the American consumer-goods giant, has taken up the invention and applied it to toothpaste tubes that promise to deliver every last scrap of their contents without having to completely flatten and destroy it in the process.

Just recently, LiquiGlide, the company spun out of MIT’s Varanasi Research Group to develop ways to manufacture and commercialise the technology, announced a new $13.5-million round of funding.

But, more importantly for consumers, the company also revealed a new partnership with Colgate, which will be introducing a new recyclable toothpaste container that leverages LiquiGlide so that every last drop of the product can be squeezed out with minimal effort.

The science behind super slipperiness

Chemists and engineers have known how to create superhydrophobic materials and surfaces for years, thanks in part to studying the approaches and techniques that Mother Nature has perfected.

Textured surfaces featuring complex microscopic patterns will create a thin cushion of air that allows liquids to easily slide right off instead of sticking, but hydrophobic surfaces typically don’t work with thicker, viscous liquids that don’t flow as easily.

Superhydrophobic materials are also often made from materials that aren’t food-safe, and over time they can degrade and become less slippery, diminishing their effectiveness.

The creators of LiquiGlide, MIT professors Kripa Varanasi and Dave Smith, came up with a better approach that solves the problem of getting all the ketchup out of a bottle.

A textured pattern is applied to a given surface, which is then specially treated to change its surface chemistry. A liquid with a custom formulation is then introduced, which not only fills in all the gaps in the microscopic textures, but also creates a thin layer on the surface that is incredibly slippery.

Materials that come into contact with it, like ketchup, easily glide across because they’re never actually making contact with the underlying surface material — be it metal, plastic, or glass — just that thin liquid layer.

Another advantage to LiquiGlide is that the liquid layer can be made from edible food-safe materials, and in some cases, even made from some of the ingredients in the actual food a container is designed to hold.

So far, ketchup-makers have not embraced the idea, and there’s been no news of a promised mayonnaise launch by Norwegian company, Orkla, that acquired a license to the technology in 2015.

But the health and beauty industry, where products tend to be pricier, is interested.

That was the technology’s real game-changer, and also why LiquiGlide the company has been able to forge partnerships with designers like Yves Béhar and companies like Colgate-Palmolive.

Mibelle Group, a Swiss producer of health-care and beauty products, employs the technology to lessen the amount of material left stuck to the insides of pipes and vessels in its factories when it is time for a clean-up.

Colgate deal the first big break into a consumer business

The new toothpaste, called Elixir, comes in three varieties: a formula for whitening teeth, one for gum and enamel care and a “detox” version which, it is claimed, removes impurities from the mouth.

All are packaged in plastic tubes that can be emptied with ease. Elixir has gone on sale in Europe, though no decision has yet been made about whether it will be sold elsewhere.

Besides pleasing customers who like to get their money’s worth, the new, slippery toothpaste tubes should help with recycling.

Existing tubes are rarely recycled, not only because they have residue left inside them but also because they are usually made from a laminate of plastic and aluminium foil. Mixed materials of this sort are hard to recycle, and therefore end up being dumped in landfill, or incinerated.

Despite their success with toothpaste, Drs Varanasi and Smith have not given up on food producers. Besides ketchup, their slippery surfaces also aid the dispensing of products such as mayonnaise, and may help, too, with things like hummus and soured cream that have a thicker consistency and which usually come in tubs.

They have, for instance, carried out a trial putting cream cheese into a squeezy bottle with a slot-shaped dispenser. “You get this perfect strip of cream cheese right on your bagel,” enthuses Smith. 

Each year, an estimated one million tonnes of condiments are thrown away globally because leftovers cannot be scraped from jars and bottles – and up to 15 per cent of a product remains in its container. 

“Until now, we’ve accepted significant waste, whether in manufacturing or in packaging, as part of the price for these products because they stick to containers or devices they touch,” says Varanasi. “By eliminating friction, LiquiGlide’s technology removes this basic constraint. 

“Now, we can dispense every last drop, minimise yield loss in manufacturing, and reduce occlusions and infections in medical devices.” 

Source: The Economist,