Milk Proteins Protect Fabrics From Fire | Chemical & Engineering News
 
 
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Web Date: March 11, 2014

Milk Proteins Protect Fabrics From Fire

Flame Retardants: Casein, a protein left over from cheese production, could be an ecofriendly and nontoxic alternative to current phosphate-based retardants
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Green Chemistry
News Channels: Environmental SCENE, Materials SCENE
Keywords: flame retardant, casein, ammonium polyphosphate, APP, cheese, milk, whey
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Burn Blocker
Researchers subjected fabric samples coated with milk proteins to flammability tests. They applied a flame for 3 seconds to cotton (left) and polyester (right) laid on a horizontal surface. The flames extinguished themselves in the cotton after 75 seconds and in the polyester after 54 seconds.
Credit: Ind. Eng. Chem. Res.
20140311lnj1-fabricscasein2
 
Burn Blocker
Researchers subjected fabric samples coated with milk proteins to flammability tests. They applied a flame for 3 seconds to cotton (left) and polyester (right) laid on a horizontal surface. The flames extinguished themselves in the cotton after 75 seconds and in the polyester after 54 seconds.
Credit: Ind. Eng. Chem. Res.

Many compounds currently used as flame retardants in upholstered furniture and plastics have come under scrutiny for their potentially harmful effects on the environment and human health. Since manufacturers often rely on flame retardants to meet fire-safety standards for certain products, many have looked for nontoxic compounds as alternatives. Now, researchers in Italy have demonstrated that caseins—proteins found in milk that are a by-product of cheese production—may fit the bill (Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 2014, DOI: 10.1021/ie404089t).

Some types of flame retardants, such as organophosphate esters, get their fire-blocking properties from their high phosphorus content. When they burn, a polymer layer of phosphoric acid forms and creates a char that blocks heat transfer to unburned areas of the material, slowing the spread of the fire.

Jenny Alongi of the Polytechnic University of Turin and her colleagues decided to investigate a family of proteins called caseins as alternative flame retardants because they contain a large number of phosphate groups. Caseins are found in the whey that’s a by-product of cheese production, so in countries that produce a lot of cheese, such as Italy and France, the proteins are cheap and abundant, Alongi says.

The team coated three materials—cotton, polyester, and a blend of 65% polyester and 35% cotton—with the proteins by soaking the fabrics in distilled water mixed with casein powder. The researchers then submitted the samples to a battery of flammability tests. The results were encouraging: In cotton- and polyester-only fabrics treated with caseins, flames extinguished themselves, leaving 86% of the cotton and 77% of the polyester unburned. The cotton-polyester blend burned completely but took 60% more time to do so than the untreated material.

The flame-retardant properties of caseins also compared well to those of ammonium polyphosphate (APP), a flame retardant used for fire proofing polyolefins and polyurethanes. The caseins effectively form a char layer on the fabric samples. But unlike APP, they don’t produce toxic fumes during combustion.

Before caseins can be used as flame retardants, researchers need to work out many issues, such as preventing the proteins from washing off materials. The team is now testing light-curable resins and molecules such as urea that could bond the casein molecules to the surface of the fabric, Alongi says. Another problem is that materials treated with caseins smell rancid. Alongi and her colleagues are looking for ways to remove the molecules associated with casein that produce the odor.

The caseins performed well compared to current flame retardants, says Jacob de Boer, an analytical chemist at VU University Amsterdam, who has investigated the impact of organophosphorus flame retardants on the environment. He hopes the team pursues the research further.

 
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Comments
Susan Gawarecki  (March 12, 2014 2:17 PM)
Researchers should also test the ability of these possible retardants to stand up to modern detergents and fabric cleaners designed to destroy pet urine. Additionally, the susceptibility of fabrics to attack by mold and mildew is a significant concern in many residential environments.
Greg Wolber  (March 14, 2014 10:45 AM)
Some individuals are severely allergic to Casein, the milk protein (same concept as seafood or peanut allergies). Touching this treated fabric could cause hives, or worse. Imagine going to visit a friend, sitting on their new couch - and ending up in the hospital.
Dorothy Cook  (March 15, 2014 11:22 AM)
I would like to know whether there are any products of degradation with age that could cause an unpleasant odour. I had to investigate an office that had an unpleasant odour that resembled sour milk that appeared to be emanating from the furnishings. FTIR testing revealed some amine compounds but the results were inconclusive.
Dr Martin Palmer  (March 25, 2014 11:33 PM)
This article is inaccurate and misleading in that caseins are not a by-product of cheesemaking and are not found in whey. "Whey proteins" comprise mainly betalactoglobulin and alphalactalbumin. Caseins from milk are incorporated into the cheese and are not a by-product.
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