28 September 2006

There may be money in chicken feathers

Yiqi Yang, a professor of textile science at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, presented a study to the American Chemical 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 created a printed circuit board made from soybeans and chicken feathers. (The board was such a hit at the Delaware State Fair 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.

(Cf. news of July 04, 2006, Aug. 30, 2005 and Sept. 24, 2004.)

Source: Leaderpost September 21, 2006.

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