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Milk Byproduct Could Become New Flame Retardant

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It sounds like it belongs in our April Fools edition, but recent research really suggests we could treat our fabrics with whey, replacing toxic chemicals.

By Candace Pearson

curd_and_whey.jpg

During cheese production, curds are separated from whey, and the whey is typically discharged into the wastewater management system. This abundant, cheap resource may have applications as a flame retardant.

Leave it to Italy to figure out that cheese making could produce a good alternative to flame retardants. It sounds hard to believe, but researchers at the Polytechnic University of Turin are serious and have promising test results to prove it.

Think back to Miss Muffet and her curds and whey, and you may remember that whey is a byproduct of milk, often produced in the making of cheese. Whey contains proteins called caseins that researchers have found form a layer of char that blocks flames from spreading—similar to how some flame retardants function, but without the accompanying toxic compounds.

After treating fabrics in distilled water and casein powder, the researchers performed flammability tests. Only 14% of a cotton sample and 23% of a polyester cloth burned before the flames extinguished themselves. A cotton-polyester blend burned completely but smoldered 60% more slowly than the untreated material.

According to researchers, one of the biggest challenges ahead is one anyone might expect: the cheese-treated fabrics stink. The next task for researchers is to attempt to remove the molecules associated with the odor as well as to develop a binder that ensures the treatment does not wash off. If successful, it wouldn’t be the first building product that makes use of whey, which otherwise requires intensive wastewater treatment: water-based floor finishes also use the dairy byproduct.

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April 2, 2014