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Tech Trends

Cutting Edge Containers

Japanese food and beverage makers are in a fierce competition to improve the design of their bottles and other containers. They believe this innovation differentiates their products from competitors and can boost their market share.

Kirin Beverage is one of Japan's major soft-drink companies. It produces 180 million 2-liter bottles of mineral water a year, using the spring water that flows down from Mount Fuji. This year, the company changed its plastic bottle for the first time in 5 years, reducing the weight by 20 percent. At 28.9 grams, it's currently the most lightweight bottle in the industry.

This innovation has reduced the amount of petroleum-based materials the company uses by more than 1,000 tons a year, producing an annual saving of about $1 million. The bottle is just 0.15mm thick and can easily be crushed. It's one-twelfth the original volume once crushed, making for a significant reduction in waste.

Thinner bottles are weaker, so stacking can result in those at the bottom getting crushed. But better design has made these bottles stronger. The solution was found in a flowering plant.

Threads radiating out from the center of a morning glory support its fragile petals. That's the model for the bottom of the bottle, where the load is heaviest. There are 16 indentations in the base. The downward force splits at the peak of each indentation and is also counteracted by the opposing force from other indentations. There are also 16 grooves in the body of the bottle. These modifications enable the bottle to withstand a load of more than 20kg.

Advances in food containers are also making strides. Plastic containers have some advantages over cans. They're less than half the weight and can be used in the microwave, but food doesn't stay fresh in them for long.

One firm is developing a plastic container that preserves food at room temperature for 3 years. Research staff checked on some tuna they had put into the container two years earlier. They said it looked and smelled fine and tasted just like canned tuna. They say the structure of the container is key to its ability to preserve food. They have inserted a 0.02 mm barrier layer into the plastic to prevent oxygen from seeping in and keep the contents fresh. Occasionally, some oxygen gets in, so they've mixed in a resin absorbent to prevent this.

Naoki Kadotani is chief engineer at the company, Bespack. He says you can eat from the container as is, and that it has promise for use in emergency provisions.

Flavor may be important in the business of selling beverages, but manufacturers know that a container can also sway people's choice, and help boost market share.

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