Protein-based packaging films, sheets and composites : process development and functional properties

Abstract: The depletion of the petroleum resources and a number of environmental concerns led to considerable research efforts in the field of biodegradable materials over the last few decades. Of the diverse range of biopolymers, wheat gluten (WG) stands out as an alternative to synthetic plastics in packaging applications due to its attractive combination of flexibility and strength, high gas barrier properties under low humidity conditions and renewability. The availability of raw materials has also been largely increased with an increase in the production of WG as a low-cost surplus material due to increasing demand for ethanol as fuel. In this study, WG was processed into films, sheets and composites using some of the most widely used techniques including solution casting, compression molding, extrusion and injection molding, accompanying process optimizations and characterization of their functional properties. This thesis consists mainly of six parts based on the purpose of the study. The first part addresses the aging and optical properties of the cast film in order to understand the mechanisms and reasons for the time-dependant physical and chemical changes. The films plasticized with glycerol were cast from acidic (pH 4) and basic (pH11) solutions. The film prepared from the pH 11 solution was mechanically more stable upon aging than the pH 4 film, which was initially very ductile but became brittle with time. It was revealed that the protein structure of the pH 4 film was initially less polymerized/aggregated and the polymerization increased during storage but it did not reach the degree of aggregation of the pH 11 film. During aging, the pH 4 film lost more mass than the pH 11 film mainly due to migration of glycerol but also due to some loss of volatile mass. In addition the greater plasticizer loss of the pH 4 film was presumably due to its initial lower degree of protein aggregation/polymerization. Glycerol content did not significantly change the opacity and pH 4 films showed good contact clarity because of less Maillard reaction. In the second part, the heat-sealability of WG films was investigated, using an impulse-heat sealer, as the sealability is one of the most important properties in the use of flexible packaging materials. It was observed that the WG films were readily sealable while preserving their mechanical integrity. The sealing temperature had a negligible effect on the lap-shear strength, but the peel strength increased with sealing temperature. The lap-shear strength increased with increasing mold temperature and the failure mode changed. The third part describes the possibility of using industrial hemp fibers to reinforce wheat gluten sheets based on evaluation of the fiber contents, fiber distribution and bonding between the fibers and matrix. It was found that the hemp fibers enhanced the mechanical properties, in which the fiber contents played a significant role in the strength. The fiber bonding was improved by addition of diamine as a cross-linker, while the fiber distribution needed to be improved. The fourth part presents a novel approach to improve the barrier and mechanical properties of extruded WG sheets with a single screw extruder at alkaline conditions using 3-5wt.% NaOH with or without 1 wt.% salicylic acid. The oxygen barrier, at dry conditions, was improved significantly with the addition of NaOH, while the addition of salicylic acid yielded poorer barrier properties. It was also observed that the WG sheets with 3 wt.% NaOH had the most suitable combination of low oxygen permeability and relatively small time-dependant changes in mechanical properties, probably due to low plasticizer migration and an optimal protein aggregation/polymerization. In the fifth part WG/PLA laminates were characterized for the purpose of improving the water barrier properties. The lamination was performed at 110°C and scanning electron microscopy showed that the laminated films were uniform in thickness. The laminates significantly suppressed the mass loss and showed promising water vapor barrier properties in humid conditions indicating possible applications in packaging. The final part addresses the development of injection molding processes for WG. Injection-molded nanocomposites of WG/MMT were also characterized. WG sheets were successively processed using injection molding and the process temperatures were found to preferably be in a range of 170-200°C, which was varied depending on the sample compositions. The clay was found to enhance the processability, being well dispersed in the matrix. The natural clay increased the tensile stiffness, whereas the modified clay increased the surface hydrophobicity. Both clays decreased the Tg and increased the thermal stability of the nanocomposites. The overall conclusion was that injection molding is a promising method for producing WG items of simple shapes. Further studies will reveal if gluten can also be used for making more complex shapes.

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