Asbestos was once a miracle substance. An abundant rock, it breaks into fibers that mix easily with plaster, fabrics, tiles, and construction materials, making them all extraordinarily fire resistant. But those fibers don’t stop there. When tiles break or insulation crumbles, boilers shatter or dust accumulates, those asbestos fibers crawl their way into people’s lungs, where they cause cancer and other diseases.
Researchers at the Polytechnic University in Turin, Italy, have discovered a safer fireproofing method. Whey, a byproduct of cheese production, contains casein, which in turn contains a lot of phosphate groups. Phosphate groups are important because when they catch fire, they quickly turn to char and so give only a dead end for a flame to follow.
To test the retardant capabilities of whey, researchers coated three different fabrics in a water and casein bath. Once the samples were dry, the researchers then set them on fire. Flames on the casein-coated cotton self-extinguished after only consuming 14 percent of the fabric. Only 23 percent of the polyester sample coated in casein burnt before the fire ran out of fuel. The casein was unable to stop the fire burning up a cotton-polyester blend, but it did slow it down, with the fire taking 60 percent more time to consume the treated blend then it did an untreated blend.
This is a promising start, but there is much more to be done before casein-coated fabrics are ready for the public. One challenge is making sure that the coating doesn’t wash off when the clothes are cleaned. Another is making sure that a fabric coated in dairy doesn’t have any characteristics, like bad odor, that would stop people from using.
Still, if the choices are “smell bad,” “get cancer,” or “be on fire,” I think the smell is easily the least bad option.