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Issue 478, 4 March 2002

Research and design in a neat package

Surgical dressings are packaged to stay sterile; food is packaged to stay fresh, or to look attractive; tools are packaged to protect the handler. Almost everything we buy or use is packaged in some way, and while we might casually throw away the wrappings, or recycle them if we're environmentally minded, we rarely consider the level of design and technology which creates those outer layers.

Colour chemistry professor Jim Guthrie explains: "Packaging is incredibly complex, with hundreds of chemical interactions involved, in the adhesives, the printing processes, the novel coatings and polymers now being used. If any of those reactions is not 100% complete then active agents remain which can cause problems to the contents."

Most of Professor's Guthrie's work looks at how to avoid tastes and odours caused by unwanted chemical reactions. He develops analysis techniques to identify the troublesome components, often present in very small amounts.

Professor Guthrie: "The ideal solution is to stop the reactions happening in the first place. Where this isn't possible, we block the by-products or add another chemical to change the reaction. It's a very delicate balance, as using other additives can cause more problems in itself."

Names in print Jim Guthrie (above left) with Dr Jim MacWilliams of the Leeds College of Technology

While the package might be problem free as it rolls off the production line in pristine condition, Professor Guthrie also has to take into account what might befall it during its lifetime, from how it is handled to the conditions under which it is stored.

Much of the research is funded by printing and packaging companies, who benefit from the departments' problem diagnosis, short-term projects to find solutions, or longer-term developmental research.

The work covers the whole packaging process, from design brief to finished product, and solutions are either tested in the factory, or on the Leeds College of Technology printing press.

Professor Guthrie's research is also part of the White Rose Faraday partnership, which brings together academics in the universities of Leeds, York and Sheffield with partners in the packaging industry.

For more information on Faraday partnerships, see the White Rose website.

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