Chemical engineers have created a new type of durable membrane from whey protein,
a natural component of milk.
Whey-based membranes might be used to filter particles as small as individual
protein molecules during the processing of edible oils, pharmaceuticals, and even
milk itself. The membranes might also serve as components of sensors for detecting
molecules in a sample of biological fluid, such as blood, says Robert R. Beitle of
the University of Arkansas
Working in Beitle’s lab, graduate student Jiunn Yeong Teo created the membranes by dissolving whey protein in a salt solution. After heating the solution to unfold the protein molecules, Teo let the material cool. Meanwhile, chemical bonding between proteins created the porous membrane structure.
Manufacturers generally use volatile and sometimes hazardous solvents to make the
polymer membranes common in industrial and medical settings. A source of membranes
made from protein in a salt solution could prove to be a more environmentally
friendly alternative, says Beitle. “They’re as green as you can get,” he says.
Beitle and Teo report their work in the Oct. 15 Journal of Membrane Science.
Next, the researchers must determine whether the whey membrane stays intact as it
filters substances from fluids. That’s particularly important in medical and food
applications, notes Beitle, since some people are allergic to whey.