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Aeroclay’s ‘dirty milkshake’ strives to become versatile, green alternative to petro-based polymers

David Schiraldi, a polymer industry veteran and chair of Case Western University's Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering, calls it the "best product concept I've run into in my career."

Now, Schiraldi's company, Solon-based Aeroclay, is working to commercialize its advanced material made of clay, milk and water -- what he and his students refer to as "a dirty milkshake."

The technology was born at Case Western and licensed to Aeroclay, for which Schiraldi is chief science officer. Discovered by accident, the product with the same name as the company is lighter, greener and more versatile than petroleum-based polymers, he says.

The process sounds deceptively simple: Mix clay, milk and water in a blender, freeze dry it in a mold, and voila -- a material that, depending on the formula used, feels like Styrofoam, cork, balsa wood or other materials commonly used in industry. Aeroclay's polymer content -- some 40 different polymers are possible at present -- is derived from casein, the protein found in the milk.

One of the big advantages of Aeroclay is that "when you're half dirt, you don't burn very well or barely burn at all," Schiraldi says. "If you insulate something with polystyrene foam and you get a short circuit, your house burns down. With this, we can take a propane torch to it for five minutes and nothing happens."

Because the material doesn't rely on petroleum, Aeroclay is environmentally friendly. Additionally, using milk as the source for polymer-producing protein could benefit the dairy industry, Schiraldi says.

While Schiraldi says petroleum-based products will be cheaper than Aeroclay for some time, he says the product is poised to find its way into niche markets attracted to its other properties. He says the company, formed last April, is negotiating with a number of Fortune 100 firms, has joint development agreements with a couple of large companies, and expects commercialization near the end of the year.

Most of the company's revenue is likely to come from licensing deals rather than on-site production, Schiraldi says. Aeroclay currently employs six, but will grow as the business expands, he predicts.

Source: David Schiraldi, Aeroclay
Writer: Gene Monteith
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