Using a SEM in packaging material development and analysis

By Luigi Raspolini - October 25, 2018

Nowadays, the packaging industry is one of the fastest growing in terms of technology advancement and employing the latest available scientific developments. The reason lies in the greater demand for products and the upscale of shipments from regional transport to worldwide delivery. To ensure that the technologies are integrated in the right way, and to verify the quality of such introductions, more advanced inspection tools are required and scanning electron microscopes (SEM) play an increasingly important role in the material development. This blog will highlight some of the most common uses of electron microscopy within this field of application.

SEM solving problems in failure analysis

The quality and reliability of packaging materials are of primary importance, and robustness becomes a key requirement when the material is used to transport, for example, food. In fact, external contamination must be absolutely prevented and a more sophisticated approach is required to ensure that the organolectic properties of the food are not endangered by the material used in the packaging.

Schermafbeelding 2018-10-23 om 08.52.34

Image 1 shows a multi-layer material imaged with a SEM. Sample preparation was performed with an ion miller for a perfectly polished cut.

Multi-layer materials are widely used for such purposes, as they can combine properties of different materials together, resulting in the most appropriate solution for the product that is to be transported. SEM can be therefore be used to investigate the following:

  • Inclusions: external particles that somehow enter the production line. They can be released by an element of the production line or by an operator. Or an airborne particle can easily be deposited on the material. A SEM can be used to investigate the shape, the size and the composition of the alien particle in order to identify the source of the contamination and increase the quality of the product.

  • Defects in the manufacturing: folds, scratches and holes, as well as layer thickness can be measured with high accuracy using a SEM. Seals and other sensitive parts can also be investigated to gather more information on how different techniques result in a better seal.

  • Resilience: polymers, paper, thin metal layers and many more different types of material are combined to create the ultimate packaging material. They all react to tension in a different way and tensile testing can be used in a SEM to determine the mechanism causing the rupture. 










Video 1. Tensile Sample Holder Packaging ripping process (AI side) 










Video 2. Tensile Sample Holder Packaging ripping process 

Video 1 and 2: the videos show how the multi-layer packaging material used for milk cartons breaks when it undergoes traction. The different layers break at different moments, showing which one offers the best resistance. The two videos show the sample from the internal and external view.

SEM in smart packaging development

Smart is a key word for everything these days. Packaging material is no exception and a box that can tell you what its content are, how long it has been in there, or what temperature it was exposed to is not too far from reality. Combined with a smart fridge, you could eventually end up with a notification on your phone telling you that you are out of milk and you need to buy more.This is being achieved by introducing small electronic circuits into the packaging material that monitor what is happening on the inside.

Current developments in the field of smart packaging can be observed with polymers that can filter out the oxygen contained in a box via complex chemical processes. In fact, removing the oxygen resultsin preserving the nutritional value and freshness of the contents and ensures a longer shelf life. Such developments require the use of ultra-fine filtering membranes that could only be imaged and analyzed using a SEM.

SEM in biocompatibility development

Biodegradability is thankfully becoming more and more important in the development of new materials and quite substantial funding is provided by institutions to all the entities that develop green materials and green production processes.The biosustainability and decomposition rate of packaging materials can be easily investigated with a SEM and the green index of different materials (or the same material produced with a different process) can be improved.

Find out more about what a SEM can do and what high-quality images produced by a SEM look like, by taking our short but fun SEM images quiz. You might even be able to recognize a few of the materials in the images. Will you be a SEM Starter, Star or Superstar? Take the quiz and find out! 

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Topics: R&D

About the author

Luigi Raspolini is an Application Engineer at Thermo Fisher Scientific, the world leader in serving science. Luigi is constantly looking for new approaches to materials characterization, surface roughness measurements and composition analysis. He is passionate about improving user experiences and demonstrating the best way to image every kind of sample.

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