Biodegradable Styrofoam Made From Milk.
Scientists at Case Western Reserve University have whipped up an alternative to insidious petroleum-derived styrofoam packaging using a combination of clay and milk protein.
The scientists, led by macromolecular science and engineering professor David Schiraldi, took the cow milk protein casein and strengthened it with a little bit of clay and glyceraldehyde, a triose monosaccharide. Casein is already a pretty popular substance for adhesives, but it's water soluble. Not ideal for packaging. Schiraldi and his colleagues blended all three ingredients and freeze dried the mixture to make an aerogel that they then baked in the oven.
According to the scientists, the cured, foamlike material is strong enough for commercial use and a third of it biodegraded within a month's time. They published their results (abstract) recently in the journal Biomacromolecules. The university reports that the material has potential uses in insulation, packaging, furniture, and even cushions. Having felt a wave of sick guilt on opening boxes unexpectedly filled with styrofoam chunks, I'm a big fan of strong alternatives. One of the best I've seen recently is Ecovative Design's fungi-derived EcoCradle packaging that uses agricultural waste.
I can almost hear you wondering about the use of milk for a nonedible purpose, and while I do think that's a legitimate point, small dairy farms across America have been struggling for a long time. Last year the situation was so dire that the New York Times even published an editorial in favor of short-term price support to help farmers weather the economic storm. Growing up in a dairy state myself, I'm in favor of ways to help family farmers move ahead successfully, and sustainably. Imagine how much the economics could change if casein production gets scaled up for replacing existing styrofoam.
While the scientists didn't mention what this would cost, I can't imagine it being extremely expensive. After all, gas and milk prices seem relatively close, on the consumer end of things at least. Plus, it seems like a packaging material that small businesses might even be able to produce on-site themselves for their products. What an amazing milkshake.