British company Thermotic Developments (TDL) looks set to trigger a burgeoning market for self-heating cans. Co-developed over a period of five years using the scientific resources of the University of Southampton, the can was recently launched on to a receptive British market under Nestlé's Nescafé label.
Having set up a company to promote and market the product - called the Thermotic Can - TDL directors Carden Taft and Matthew Searle needed technological expertise to evolve the complete package. They contacted Dr Neil Richardson, Senior Lecturer in Thermodynamics and Director of the Institute of Cryogenics, who had already acted as a Consultant to TDL on an earlier project.
"Although TDL had no shortage of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, they lacked laboratory facilities and technical expertise," said Dr Richardson. "To take the project forward we reached an agreement in which the University of Southampton acquired equity in the company in return for providing the R&D facilities. The University therefore became both a major shareholder and development partner."
While the concept of a self-heating container was not new, previous versions had not been without hazards. Recent designs have all relied on an exothermic chemical reaction to generate heat.
"The fundamental chemistry is well known," said Dr Richardson. "The difficult part is optimising the reaction and the thermal design of the container to provide an efficient, safe and cost-effective package."
The researchers soon discovered that in practice the reaction was nowhere near as straightforward as chemistry text-books suggested and that the thermal design was critical to the efficient operation of the device. The results of this work were embodied in patents which are now seen as fundamental to the success of the design.
Nestle joined the project in 1998 as the company chosen to launch the Thermotic Can. Nestle laboratories provided the all-important input on food technology while TDL, through its subsidiary CPI Thermotic, 'productionised' the technology, building on the results of the Southampton R&D.
Dr Richardson continues to advise TDL and to liaise with the production engineers in Mansfield, and research continues in the Southampton laboratories into new variations and future developments.
The newly launched can relies on a simple mechanism activated when a button is pushed on the base, producing a chemical reaction between water, which is stored in the can's base, and quicklime. After three minutes the coffee in the can is heated to the optimal temperature of 60 degrees C. The can - opened by a ring-pull - uses reinforced materials to prevent either the drinker's lips or fingers being burnt.
The potential market for self-heating cans could be huge, according to Nestle's UK commercial project manager, Graham White. "If just half a per cent of the 100 billion hot drinks consumed in the UK each year were in self-heating cans, the sales could be 500 million," he said.
While the technology being used to heat the coffee is not new, the backing of Nestle, the world's biggest food and beverage company, gives the self-heating can the chance of commercial success.