People consume a lot of cheese, and the cheese making process produces whey.
Whey is used in a range of products such as candy, pasta, baked goods, animal
feed and even pharmaceuticals. New research shows that whey can also be used to
create eco-friendly products.
ARS's Dairy Processing and Products Research Unit at the
Regional Research Center (ERRC) in
Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, has investigated uses for whey
and other dairy byproducts and showed that whey can also be used to create
eco-friendly products. For example, using a process called "reactive extrusion,"
food technologist Charles Onwulata supplements polyethylene—a common
nonbiodegradable plastic—with whey proteins.
Reactive extrusion involves forcing plastic material through a
heating chamber, where it melts and combines with a chemical agent that
strengthens it before it's molded into a new shape. Onwulata showed that by
combining dairy proteins with starch during this process, it's possible to
create a biodegradable plastic product that can be mixed with polyethylene and
molded into utensils.
Working with laboratory chief
Seiichiro Isobe, of the
Japanese National Food Research Institute,
Onwulata created a bioplastic
blend by combining whey protein isolate, cornstarch, glycerol, cellulose fiber,
acetic acid, and the milk protein casein and molded the material into cups.
Onwulata observed that dairy-based bioplastics were more pliable than other
bioplastics, making them easier to mold.
Bioplastic blends can replace
only about 20% of the polyethylene in a product, so resulting materials are only
partially biodegradable. But Onwulata and his colleagues are currently applying
this process to polylactide (PLA), a biodegradable polymer.
In a separate project, research leader Peggy Tomasula and her
colleagues have developed technology to create biodegradable films from
byproducts of both dairy processing and biofuels production. Tomasula found that
combining casein with water and glycerol—a byproduct of biodiesel
production—produces a water-resistant film that can be used as an edible coating
for groceries and other products.
"We use carbon dioxide as an
environmentally friendly solvent to isolate dairy proteins from milk, instead of
harsh chemicals or acids, which can be difficult to dispose of," Tomasula says.
Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of the glucose fermentation that is used to make
ethanol, and she says it makes the edible film more water resistant.
resulting food coatings are glossy, transparent, and completely edible. Like
traditional food packaging, edible films can extend the shelf life of many
foods, protect products from damage, prevent exposure to moisture and oxygen,
and improve appearance. By using renewable resources instead of petrochemicals,
the scientists can create more biodegradable products and reduce
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