Styrofoam is a wonderful invention in many ways — how else are you going to lug home the leftovers from the restaurant? — but it's not exactly the most earth-friendly thing humans have ever made. It basically sits around forever, never breaking down.
A team at Case Western Reserve University has a solution, and it's made from 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.