INV-21129 Tech Write Up: A naturally-derived and edible photonic crystal coloring system 




Colorants are applied to the food we consume with surprising frequency, in order to enhance their visual appeal. The compounds utilized to accomplish this can either be artificially synthesized or naturally derived. Artificial colorants were largely popular in previous decades, as they were inexpensive to generate, and could be easily integrated into most foods; however, safety concerns regarding potential allergic reactions and behavioral shifts prompted scientists to generate a more natural alternative. Many colorants today are indeed derived from natural products, which are safer to consume, yet there is a substantial drawback in their instability against heat, oxygen and light as well as a less vivid coloration. Thus, this 30-50 billion dollar industry requires a safe, naturally derived colorant that can perform just as well as its artificial counterparts. Fortunately, researchers at Northeastern University have managed to exploit Zein, a protein found in corn, to generate a naturally-derived and edible photonic crystal coloring system capable of filling this large demand gap. 


Technology Overview: 


By utilizing green chemistry, Northeastern researchers can generate Zein crystal films varying in particle size, packing density and thickness. This coloring system is safer to consume than artificial colorants due to its natural synthesis, yet it also boasts a significantly better performance than other natural alternatives. There are also substantial advantages in utilizing a photonic crystal system as opposed to the more conventional pigment-based colorant approach. For example, these crystal films are incredibly stable and are not susceptible to fading. Furthermore, the flexible crystal synthesis process allows for the manipulation of light reflection and provides colorant choices ranging the entire visible light spectrum. Intriguingly, this coloring system presents a unique color change in response to organic vapors, which could conveniently be applied as an intelligent food packaging system to detect volatile organic compounds released by spoiled foods. 



1. Colorant for food, drug and cosmetic products 

2. Intelligent packaging sensor for food, drug and cosmetic products 

3. Edible colorimetric sensor for food, drug and cosmetic products 

4. Adhesive for paper-based materials  

5. Stabilizer for biological pigments 



  1. License 

  1. Partnering 

  1. Research collaboration 

Patent Information:
For Information, Contact:
Vaibhav Saini
Senior Manager Commercialization
Northeastern University
Patrick Sullivan
Leila Deravi
Zhuangsheng Lin
Cassandra Martin
Duncan Bower
Ying (Ivy) Wang