JAMESBURG, N.J. - The barrier advantages of transparent silicone and aluminum oxides in packaging are just becoming known, but their cost and a dearth of research may confine them to high-end pharmaceutical and medical uses. John T. Felts, the former packaging division general manager of BOC Coating Technology of Concord, Calif., said one such package is sold in America - a gable-topped polyethylene and paper fruit juice container with a silicone oxide barrier layer made by Tetra Rex Packaging Systems of Buffalo Grove, Ill.
Rolled sheet barrier plastic is manufactured by Tetra Pak, which is headquartered in Lincolnshire, Ill. The material then is used to make the gabled package, which is marketed by Chiquita, Felts said.
Although technically exacting, ``the easiest part of this technology is making the coatings,'' Felts said.
``Ninety percent [of the effort] is converting it into a package,'' he added.
Others are kept from marketing a similar product in this country by the cost, oxides' inherent brittleness and limitations imposed on some of the package's technology by a patent held by International Paper Corp.
Tetra Pak and the Japanese firm Toppan Printing Co. Ltd. are the largest producers of such oxide barrier plastics, Felts said.
Japanese companies use the technology for its water-vapor barrier properties in containers holding liquids as varied as motor oil and sake.
Japanese consumers alsoplace a higher value than Americans do on the albeit costlysource reduction advantages of the gabled package, according to Felts.
Even as domestic packagers struggle with finding PET alternatives with greater barrier properties, they are finding it ``hard to justify the investmentsin this technology when you look at the size of the market,'' he said.
Felts estimates that about 5.3 million pounds of transparent oxide-coated plastic was manufactured worldwide last year, with the vast majority going to research by companies that ``don't want to talk about what they're doing.''
Felts, now an entrepreneur in Alameda, Calif., who holds several oxide-barrier application patents, said many more applications for the technology might be available if packagers had turned their attention sooner to polypropylene, both cast and extruded, instead of PE.
PP is a cheaper base from which to build barrier films and packages than polyester or PE, he noted.
Oxide-coated transparent barrier technology was nonetheless a hot topic for packagers at the PET Update '95 program sponsored by Packaging Group Inc. of Milltown, N.J.
The conference in Jamesburg attracted more than a dozen companies as diverse as RJR Nabisco and Jindal Polyester Ltd. of New Delhi, India, to New Jersey in search of a solution to the PET shortage that has plagued their industry.
Felts' message was as cautionary about transparent oxide barrier technology as it was intended to be informative. One of the biggest problems with the technology now is that ``those who are promoting the technology are machine makers.''
``They'll make the machine for you all right, but then they hand it over to you to produce the thinnest films with a dependable and consistent level of barrier properties,'' Felts said.
Don Mattox, technical director for the Society of Vacuum Coaters in Albuquerque, N.M., said oxide barrier technology presents ``a gigantic potential market.''
``I wouldn't be surprised if the container people end up outstripping the web [sheet] coating substrate people'' in the use of this technology, he said.
Additional papers on transparent silicone and aluminum oxide coatings will be presented at the next SVC meeting, set for May 6 in Philadelphia, Mattox said.