Plant proteins as multifunctional additives in polymer composites
Wheat gluten, wheat gliadin, and corn zein agricultural proteins were evaluated as multifunctional additives that: (1) provided reinforcement, (2) improved thermal stability, and (3) lowered the cost of polymer composites. Wheat proteins were utilized in two polymer matrices: poly(vinyl alcohol) (PVA) and synthetic cis-1,4-polyisoprene rubber (IR). The proteins were hydrolyzed and dispersed in the polymer matrix, where they cooperatively self-assembled into nanostructures called amyloids. Amyloids have the potential for high rigidity and stability due to high β-sheet content. In Chapter II, trypsin hydrolyzed wheat gluten (THWG) proteins were incubated in aqueous PVA solutions, then the composite solutions were air dried and compression molded into films. Anisotropic protein aggregates formed through a typical mechanism of β-sheet self-assembly, where a greater molding time and pressure and/or a lower PVA molecular weight allowed for more protein aggregation. The larger protein structures provided less reinforcement. In Chapters III and IV, THWG and trypsin hydrolyzed gliadin (THGd), a component protein in wheat gluten, were compounded in synthetic polyisoprene rubber to form nanocomposites. The reinforcement correlated to the protein β-sheet content and varied with protein concentration, protein batch preparation, processing temperature, and compounding time. The isotropic β-sheet containing structures were very thermally stable, even under harsh rubber compounding conditions. By optimizing the processing parameters uniform protein dispersion and optimal IR reinforcement were achieved, although the protein and IR phases had poor compatibility. In Chapter V, the THGd-IR composites were cured using a typical cure package and molding process. Protein aggregation into nanostructured β-sheets was observed during the curing process. Rubber reinforcement increased as a function of protein concentration and curing time. In Chapter VI, a hydrophobic protein (zein) was substituted for the hydrophilic protein (gliadin) used previously to improve protein-IR compatibility. The zein protein was better at reinforcing IR, while gliadin improved mechanical stability. Both zein and gliadin improved the thermal stability of IR. The results from Chapters II-VI showed an interesting concept: in situ filler formation in polymer matrices where the choice of protein, polymer, and processing conditions influenced the final morphology and composite properties.