Imagine opening your refrigerator door and finding one of your favourite products showing you, by the colour of its packaging, that it is no longer fresh. Reality or far-fetched? It is one of the tangible research goals of the team headed by Abdellah Ajji, Associate Professor in Polytechnique's Department of Chemical Engineering and holder of the Chair, for the benefit of consumers who have become increasingly aware of the issue of food safety since the most recent contamination crises in Canada and the United States involving meat and cheese.
The worldwide value of the flexible packaging market is estimated at $60 billion. North America alone accounts for half this market, with Canada comprising $2.5 to $3 billion of that amount. "The expected spinoffs from our research will benefit Canadian companies as well as consumers,"Professor Ajji says. "They will benefit from greater competitiveness and safer packaging. Over the coming years, annual growth of about 5% to 6% is anticipated. This shows the importance of pushing the limits of research into higher-performance packaging."
Abdellah Ajji, Polytechnique de Montréal
The Research Chair will have a total operating budget of $2.6 million spread over the next five years. The NSERC is investing $1.25 million and Saputo and Excel Pac are each contributing $625,000, in addition to Polytechnique's contribution.
The work will cover four main themes:
- Developing safe and cost-effective packaging that has greater airtightness and anti-bacterial properties;
- Developing "smart"packaging that incorporates means of detection;
- Developing sustainable packaging using recyclable, biodegradable materials;
- Developing specific applications using multi-layer structures for pouches in which contents can be cooked.
A research team focused on industry needs
Professor Ajji will work closely throughout the Chair's duration with a team of about 20 researchers, including two research associates, four postdoctoral fellows and 12 graduate students. The students taking part in the research will be specifically trained and informed of issues in this field. This is a real advantage for companies that plan to hire highly qualified staff in the future.
The research team will benefit from using the partners' facilities, including Polytechnique's Centre de recherche en plasturgie et composites (Centre for Applied Research on Polymers and Composites - CREPEC) and Polynov Laboratory. It will also have access to unique equipment acquired through support from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Government of Québec. This is invaluable for the team of researchers, who up to now have had to do some of their testing in the United States.
Toward creating a centre of excellence
With his expertise in the field, and confident of breakthroughs in the research, Professor Ajji is aiming for creation of a centre of excellence in the high-performance packaging field here at Polytechnique Montréal, building a true critical mass with extensive expertise and equipment in every aspect of packaging. Professor Ajji is seeking to round out the offering by making it multidisciplinary (with collaboration from chemists, microbiologists, physicists, etc.).
"Thanks to the work of this Chair, Montréal could become a world player in research in the smart-packaging field,"notes Polytechnique Chief Executive Officer Christophe Guy. "The city will benefit from infrastructure that is unique in Canada and from a high-quality basin of researchers."
"At NSERC, we want to make Canada a country of discoverers and innovators,"said NSERC President Suzanne Fortier. "Dr. Ajji is highly respected in his field, and this research program fills a gap in Canadian R&D for packaging film engineering. Under this Research Chair, there will be developments in the safety and quality of food packaging that will bring new benefits to industry and consumers."
"Saputo is dedicated to pursuing environmentally responsible business practices and is continuously seeking improvement in its environmental performance, states Claude Pinard, Executive Vice President, Communications and Social Responsibility. This is precisely why Saputo is proud to be part of this Research Chair".
"The partnership between universities and business is logical, not just as a strategy for innovation but also as a major catalyst for it,"says Excel Pac President Vincent Musacchio. "Co-operation between people from business and from university circles is, in our view, the springboard for innovation. We encourage and believe in the importance of bringing these two communities closer."