Nescafé's infamous self-heating coffee cans were not an overwhelming success, but the technology behind them is being honed to create a vibrant new category. Driven by small science-based players both sides of the Atlantic, the market for self-heating and self-cooling cans could soon be worth big bucks, reports Hugh Westbrook.

Picture the scene. You've been walking all day and now you find yourself at the top of a mountain, with a view stretching for miles. There are no shops anywhere to be seen, you have nowhere to plug anything in, no camping stove and no knowledge of how to strike two pieces of wood together to make a fire. Yet 15 minutes later you are sitting back with a hot meal and a steaming cup of coffee. Magic? Science Fiction? No - this is the future as envisaged by manufacturers of self-heating food containers.

It is all too easy to be sceptical about self-heating containers. They are not yet an accustomed part of everyday life, and the highest-profile effort to bring self-heating containers to the market was not a success. Nestlé's product Nescafé Hot When You Want created considerable excitement when it was launched in the UK in 2002, but after a trial it disappeared.

Reports at the time suggested that the can heated too quickly and cooled too quickly and that it was not sufficiently hot in cold weather. Nestlé's only comment to just-food.com about the trial was: "We still believe in the concept and it remains under evaluation." The interest generated by the trial confirmed that there was a market - the fact that it failed reinforced perceptions that the technology does not work.

Natural process that needs harnessing

Self-heating technology works by a simple, natural principle - the mixture of water and limestone, which creates heat. The difficulty, as the Nescafé trial shows, is controlling that heat so that its release is gradual rather than sudden, while ensuring that the heat warms the product effectively and consistently. Self-heating cans tend to contain two outer layers, one with limestone and one with water. Consumers activate something simple on the can to bring these two layers into contact, and their union creates heat. The skill for manufacturers is to control that reaction to optimum effect.

The good news is that many in what is still a tiny market believe they have cracked it, and the ramifications could be huge. If self-heating is shown to work and takes a hold, a completely new sector in the food industry will be created.

That is the view of Kenney Richardson, the sales and marketing director of UK-based Hotcan. His company sells a range of branded 'Hotcan' goods in motorway service stations, and trials are shortly to extend to builders' merchants.

Richardson says his company has cracked the problems over delivery of heat to products. "The secret is in the way that we prepare the limestone," he told just-food.com. "We prepare it in a certain way that allows us to manipulate and control the reaction."

Richardson said that it takes time to bring big companies on board, so Hotcan has had to demonstrate that the science works, creating its own brand to do that. "Everybody tries to bring the big companies on and licence their technology to a global brand.

Creating a new category

"We knew we could develop the technology and then wait for global brands to make up their minds. We had to go out and start a category; nobody looks for a self-heating food section in a shop, so we had to launch that as well as the brand. Therefore we couldn't dilute it by putting somebody else's brand on it."

The company currently sells a range of food products, such as pasta or vegetarian chilli, in a self-heating can. The contents are ready to eat in 12 to 15 minutes. Crosse & Blackwell provides the food as "we didn't want to mess around making our own food, so we found a firm with some credibility". Statistics have shown consistent and repeat sales in the venues where Hotcans are available.

With technology to heat drinks and food trays also available, Richardson believes the market is ready to explode and will tap into consumer demand for food-on-the-go. "The challenge is to continue to develop the product and the brand, develop our new technologies and at some point the big boys will come on board to allow a truly global expansion.

"The key is to be able to release the consumer from points of purchase, to buy and have a product when they want them. Currently you have to either eat it straight away or reheat it later using a device." Richardson says he sees consumers beginning to buy 'one for later' when they purchase other products to eat or drink at the time, giving places like coffee bars a brand new growth area.

Cracking cans in California too

His confidence is mirrored by OnTech in the United States. The California-based company believes it has cracked the technology to heat drinks consistently, and has just agreed a deal with packaging company Sonoco, which will manufacture self-heating drink containers based on its findings.

Daniel Gibbs, OnTech's vice president, business development, told just-food.com that scientific knowledge is the key to the company's self-heating cans. "We know physics - we have matched the speed of reaction to the ability of a beverage to absorb heat," he said. "Therefore we are not pumping out heat quickly and wasting it as steam. We learned to control the rate of reaction so we match it to the rate of absorption."

Gibbs said the technology will provide consumers with ten ounces, around 300ml, of consumable product to be heated. OnTech's containers will launch later this year with Wolfgang Puck ready-to-drink coffee and in Kroger supermarkets. He believes the market could swiftly become worth US$100m.

"We use the mineral limestone that is cooked, which is commonly known as calcium oxide," he said. "It has an FDA GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) clearance, it's a food supplement, it's non-carcinogenic and it's non-ozone depleting. On the cans, you push a button on the bottom, and once the thermal ink spot on the side of the container goes from pink to white it is ready to consume and takes six minutes."

Big brand credibility will boost category

Gibbs said that bringing well-known companies on board would give the products credibility with the public. "We have a contract with a large soup and food manufacturer in Europe, and it will bring credibility once consumers see it does what we say it will."

Gibbs added that society's desire for on-the-go food and drink will create a market for his company's products. "Statistics show people don't want to prepare even at home, so even at home there could be a market," he added.

It will be fascinating to watch the development of self-heating technology over the next few years, with manufacturers sure to come on board once it has been deemed successful. Self-heating may not be the only thing to relish - Florida-based Tempra Technology recently announced a self-cooling can which will allow you to choose to have ice-cold beer at the top of your mountain, rather than coffee.

Hotcan's Richardson believes there is room for many players. "Success is that there are a lot of players in ten years' time," he said. If the bullishness of those in the market is borne out by increasing success of their products, his wish is likely to come true.