Scientists are flying into new research territory, hoping to transform chicken feathers into a variety of lightweight products — and possibly reduce plastic pollution in the world's oceans.
Ethiopian-born scientist is looking for ways to use the millions of tons of feathers discarded by the poultry industry each year
With no real value beyond stuffing a few pillows, most of the leftover feathers are burned or dumped in landfill sites, where they pose a potential biological hazard because of blood and tissue residue.
Tamrat Tesfaye, an Ethiopian-born scientist based in the South African port city of Durban, asked himself: "What a terrible waste. Why can't we turn them into something much more valuable?"
Tesfaye and his colleague Bruce Sithole have been working for nearly four years to develop new ways of cashing in on poultry plumage by turning them into a wide variety of commercially-valuable industrial and household products.
The aim is also to reduce the waste and environmental damage caused by the millions of tons of poultry feathers produced annually.
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Turning feathers into cash
Keratin is probably one of the most valuable plumage byproducts. The lightweight protein is the key structural material found in animal horns, claws and hooves, as well as in human hair and skin.
Feathers are composed of 91 percent keratin, along with about 8 percent water and 1 percent lipids.
"Keratin is really unique in so many ways," Tesfaye told DW, pointing to the protein's lightweight, low-density structure, strength, and absorbent properties.
And this is what makes it ideal for a wide range of uses — from aerospace and automobile components to shampoo and hair care products, diapers or biodegradable plastic shopping bags.
"Keratin is 100 percent biopolymer and nontoxic. You can use it to regenerate skin. You can use it to make paper — you could even eat it if you really wanted to," Tesfaye said.
Tesfaye's keratin project is being funded by the South African government and private industry.
But before any new products can be developed, the feathers that were contaminated with blood and muscle tissue during the mechanical plucking process at local abattoirs have to be cleaned and disinfected.
To do this, the researchers have been experimenting with various thermal techniques and chemical solvents, including non-toxic ones.
Once they have clean, dry feathers to work with, these are converted into a powder or liquid through a variety of processes that can involve freezing them to temperatures of minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 Fahrenheit) to remove water and fats.
Initially, Tesfaye and his colleagues are focusing on using some of the 250,000 tons of locally harvested poultry feathers to develop composite materials that could be used in the manufacture of particle board products for homes and offices.
But they are also thinking beyond that.
"Because they are so cheap and lightweight, we think the processed feathers could be useful for the automotive and aerospace industries," said Tesfaye.
They could, for example, be used to produce dashboards, seats or engine covers for cars, or as a replacement for carbon fiber composites in planes.
Tesfaye believes poultry feathers can be converted into a wide variety of strong and lightweight industrial and household products ranging from aerospace components to non-toxic, biodegradable shopping bags
From nappies to oil spills
Working under Tesfaye's supervision, South African, Nigerian and Congolese students are experimenting with different techniques to convert keratin into textiles, wound-healing material, nano-filters and binders to replace toxic compounds in particle-board products, diapers and absorbent products for oil spill clean-ups.
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A similar, broader European project was launched in January 2017. The KaRMA 2020 initiative is funded by the European Commission and involves 16 research bodies and industry groups in countries such as Spain and Germany.
The joint project, coordinated out of the IK4-CIDETEC center in San Sebastián, Spain, recently celebrated its first anniversary.
In a paper published in the journal Polymers, CIDETEC researcher Ibon Aranberri said more than 3 million tons of poultry feathers are generated in the European Union each year — not just from chickens, but also from ducks, geese and turkeys.
The global poultry industry is huge. Some 58 billion broiler chickens are slaughtered each year for human consumption
He said the presence of "hollow honeycomb-shaped structures" in the feathers provide unique heat-insulating properties that could be used to reduce heat transfer in large buildings, making them more energy efficient.
CIDETEC is involved in the pre-treatment of poultry feathers and in developing technologies for the preparation of keratin-based materials and flame-retardant composites.
Other project partners in Europe hope to develop products such as hydrolyzed keratin for shampoos and hair conditioners, bioplastics, textiles and bio-based resins.
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KaRMA project coordinator Sarah Montes says the use of poultry feathers as a raw material in industrial applications is still very limited, and that the development of conversion methods and exploitation strategies "will not only increase the value of feathers as raw material, but also reduce environment impact and health hazards associated with landfilling."
If the use of poultry feathers to make biodegradable plastics takes off, that would be good news for our plastic-clogged oceans, in particular.
It could, Montes believes, "contribute to sustainability and a reduction in the environmental impact associated with the disposal of non-biodegradable polymers [plastics]."