Designing new materials from wheat protein
We recently discovered that wheat gluten could be formed into a tough, plasticlike substance when thiol-terminated, star-branched molecules are incorporated directly into the protein structure. This discovery offers the exciting possibility of developing biodegradable high-performance engineering plastics and composites from renewable resources that are competitive with their synthetic counterparts. Wheat gluten powder is available at a cost of less than dollars 0.5/lb, so if processing costs can be controlled, an inexpensive alternative to synthetic polymers may be possible. In the present work, we demonstrate the ability to toughen an otherwise brittle protein-based material by increasing the yield stress and strain-to-failure, without compromising stiffness. Water absorption results suggest that the cross-link density of the polymer is increased by the presence of the thiol-terminated, star-branched additive in the protein. Size-exclusion high performance liquid chromatography data of molded tri-thiol-modified gluten are consistent with that of a polymer that has been further cross-linked when compared directly with unmodified gluten, handled under identical conditions. Remarkably, the mechanical properties of our gluten formulations stored in ambient conditions were found to improve with time.