Chicken feathers no longer for the birds

People eat a lot of chicken (which is surprising, considering, as Ogden Nash once pointed out in a poem, chicken tastes just like rattlesnake). According to the latest available figures, total domestic consumption in Canada 2003 was 964,576,000 kg, or 30.5 kg per capita.

In the U.S., per capita consumption was 43 kg in 2003, but even that paled compared to the world leaders in chicken-eating, the residents of the United Arab Emirates, who eat a whopping 53.5 kg per person per year. (The U.S. actually comes third behind second-place Kuwait; Canada is ninth.)

All that chicken-eating translates into mountains and mountains of chicken feathers–between 900 million and 1.3 billion kg each year in the U.S. alone. Since the demand for feather dusters is, sadly, rather low, most of those are either burned, buried or ground up into feather meal and fed to livestock or used as fertilizer.

Wouldn’t it be great if those feathers could be put to some better use?

A number of scientists think so. One of them, Yiqi Yang, a professor of textile science at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln presented a study to the American Chemcial Society’s national meeting last week on the development of a new kind of fabric made from chicken feathers.

According to Yang, the feather-based fabric would resemble wool, which isn’t surprising, since feathers are made mostly of keratin, the same protein as wool (and skin, fingernails and hair, for that matter).

The researchers plan to use the feather’s barbs and barbules of the feather—the thin filaments that branch out from the feather’s main shaft, or quill. They have a sturdy, air-trapping honeycomb structure that makes them both resilient and lightweight, properties that could produce fabrics that weigh less and offer better shock absorption and insulation than wool.

Yang’s research into the chicken-feather fabric is still in its early stages. Other scientists are further along with their own ideas for new uses for chicken feathers.

For example, Justin R. Barone, a research scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Laboratory in Beltsville, MD, and colleagues have found that chicken-feather keratin is ideal for strengthening composites. Since the necessary processing can be done using conventional techniques, chicken-feather-strengthened composites could be cost-competitive with fiberglass, and eventually find their way into automobiles, boats, and other structures.

Barone has also found a way to use feathers as a raw material: he grinds them up and uses the protein to create biodegradable films. These may have particular use as mulching films, which farmers and gardeners use to prevent weeds from choking out garden plants and crops. Current mulching films are petroleum-based, and have to be pulled out by hand. Feather-based films could be chopped up by machinery and would simply provide another nitrogen source.

Over at Iowa State University, Jay-lin Jane, a professor in the department of food science and human nutrition, and colleague Perminus M. Mungara have transformed powdered feather meal into biodegradable plastic by blending it with soy protein and biodegradable polyesters. They’ve made prototype plastic containers that are very moisture resistant and degrade naturally.

And at the University of Delaware, Richard P. Wool, a chemical engineering professor, has been using chicken-feather fibers for years to create useful materials. One of his most famous products, featured in national media and part of a display earlier this year at the Science Museum in London, is a printed circuit board made from soybeans and chicken feathers. The board was originally made as an exhibit for the Delaware state fair, and was such a hit that a representative from Tyson Foods offered to give Wool two billion pounds of chicken feathers. He declined.

Wool has also experimented with building hurricane-resistant houses out of…well, if not exactly out of chicken feathers, at least out of materials based on keratin fibers derived from chicken feathers. Typical roofs, made of particleboards nailed together and covered with shingles, are vulnerable to high winds because the wind can rip the boards away, leaving a hole through which rain and debris enters the house, causing extensive damage. Wool has created a feather-based composite roof that’s a single piece molded on site. Because it’s a single large piece, it takes more force to pull the roofing away from the house. Officials in both China and India have expressed an interest in the research.

Chicken feathers: they’re not just for the birds any more.

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