Formaldehyde does an excellent job of preserving things, but it’s not the best stuff for us to be around. Not while we’re alive anyway.

The bad news is that many of us spend a lot more time in close contact with formaldehyde than we think. One big reason why is that it’s a common ingredient in the adhesives that hold together pressed-wood furniture.

Fortunately for us, a team of researchers at Purdue University have come up with a non-toxic alternative. They’ve cooked up a biomimetic glue that was inspired by undersea creatures.

Chemistry professor Jonathan Wilker said “we have been able to make progress here by first learning how marine mussels stick themselves to rocks.” The team’s lab is home to hundreds of them — including the cluster pictured above.

They studied the proteins that the mussels release when they attach to a surface and then formulated synthetic versions. Purdue’s creation is actually around ten times stronger than the “glue” the mussels themselves produce.

Apart from being non-toxic and substantially stronger than today’s commercial adhesives, Purdue’s alternative offers a couple other key advantages. Unsurprisingly, one of those is that it’s still effective when used underwater.

Another is that the adhesive can be broken down safely and easily, which could simplify the recycling process for materials like cardboard.

Glues that are used today also prevent us from composting many cardboard and paper products. This new mussel-inspired adhesive has the potential to change all that. It could even lead to compostable furniture.

It has to be adopted by manufacturers for that to happen, but that might not be too far off. Purdue’s scientists already have a patent in hand and the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization is ready to ink licensing deals.

If it’s easy enough to substitute and the cost is reasonable, it should be no tall task to convince companies to switch to the eco-friendly adhesive. For more weird science check out these color-changing beetles and diamond nanocrystals.

Image: Purdue University

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