Biodegradable foam created from milk and clay


October 21, 2010

A scanning electron microscope image of the milk and clay-based biodegradable foam

A scanning electron microscope image of the milk and clay-based biodegradable foam

It’s always a bummer when you take something like a computer or TV out of its box, and realize that all that Styrofoam is just going to end up in the landfill. Although it can be recycled, due to transport costs and lack of market demand, most cities don’t do so. There’s also the fact that it’s made from petroleum – so it's a long way from being sustainable. Fortunately, though, an international team of scientists has recently developed a biodegradable foam. It’s made from clay and casein, which is a naturally-occurring protein in cow’s milk.

Casein is already used in some adhesives and paper coatings, but it lacks strength and is water-soluble. The small amount of clay in the foam gives the casein the needed water resistance, while the addition of a biocompatible agent called glyceraldehyde boosts its strength by cross-linking its molecules together.

The mixture is then freeze-dried, creating an aerogel that is then cured in an oven for added strength. The finished product has been deemed strong enough for use commercial applications, such as furniture cushions, insulation, packaging, and other products.

When the team added some of the foam to a compost media, almost of a third of the material broke down within 30 days.

The research was recently published in the journal Biomacromolecules.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

This not a good idea! because we will need more cows on everybody than cows are not the greenest (Methane)

Jean-Pierre Prieur

There\'s no reason to think cows are the only way scientists can get the casein protein for the foam, therefore, there\'s no reason to think that making the biodegradable foam made from \"milk and clay\" will require countless cows and result in detrimental increases of methane production.

It would be fairly simple to sequence the gene that codes for the casein protein, and use the resulting nucleic acid to \"transform\" a \"competent\" bacterial cell (or if the bacteriophage method is your cup of tea, use transduction instead), and then grow a colony from that transformed cell to collect the casein protein they produce. A splicing method would maybe yield more consistent long term results, but in either case, efficient little bacterial cells would be making the protein, not big bovines.

No cows would be needed, although the cows feelings may be hurt when they stop getting as much attention. =P


Green Cell Foam is a cornstarch based packaging foam that is widely used as a replacement for petro-based foams. I think the motivation behind the idea is great and I hope more alternatives like this come out sooner than later!

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