New process turns waste chicken feathers into biodegradable plastic

Apr 05, 2011 By Katharine Gammon
Chicken feather-based plastics could be used to manufacture all kinds of products, from plastic cups and plates to furniture. Credit: Hariadhi

Nearly 3 billion pounds of chicken feathers are plucked each year in the United States -- and most end up in the trash. Now, a new method of processing those feathers could create better types of environmentally-friendly plastics.

" are one of those materials that is still basically waste," said Yiqi Yang, a researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one of the authors of the new research. Feathers are mostly made of keratin, the that's responsible for the strength of wool, hair, fingernails, and hooves, he added. So they "should be useful as a material."

Past efforts to create plastic from feathers resulted in products that didn’t hold up mechanically or weren't completely water-resistant, said Yang’s University of Nebraska colleague Narenda Reddy, who also worked on the project.

To make the new plastic, the researchers started with chicken and turkey feathers that had been cleaned and pulverized into a fine dust. They then added chemicals that made the keratin molecules join together to form long chains -- a process called polymerization. The team presented their work March 24 at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, California.

The plastic they made was stronger than similar materials made from starch or soy proteins, and it stood up to water. Moreover, high temperature treatment of the feathers at the start of the process would blast out any possible contamination, such as from bird flu, according to Reddy.

The new material is a thermoplastic. "We can use heat and melt it to make different products," said Reddy. Heating it to a modest -- for industrial manufacturing -- 170 degrees Celsius allows the plastic to be molded into some desired shape, and it can be melted and remolded many times. Unlike most thermoplastics, which are petroleum-based, chicken-feather plastic uses no fossil fuels, the researchers said.

The feather-based plastic could be used for all kinds of products, from plastic cups and plates to furniture. In addition to making use of feathers that would otherwise end up in landfills, it is highly biodegradable.

This and other new sources of plastic may signal a shift in the way people think about packaging, said Walter Schmidt, a scientist with the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md., who works on making a different kind of plastic from feathers. "With foods, almost everyone understands half-life and shelf-life. No one expects milk in the fridge to be good three months after purchase."

Yet we rarely think of packaging in the same way, said Schmidt. "Stuff floats around in the ocean [or] is mixed in landfills that stay there for generations. A far better solution is to make less mess in the first place and to have that material naturally recycle in a reasonable amount of time." Although feathers are known to be tough, he added, there are no archeological sites containing reservoirs of feathers, showing that they break down over time.

The usefulness of any biopolymer, like the feather plastic, depends on the cost and versatility of the end product, said Schmidt, adding that when the price of oil increases, bio-alternatives become more attractive.

As concerns over the environment and shortages of raw materials grow, creative thinking about waste products takes on greater importance. "Think of a Styrofoam coffee cup," said Schmidt. "It is used for maybe 10-15 minutes and discarded; one can dig up a Styrofoam cup from a landfill 200 years from now, wash it out, and reuse it. This is an example of a lousy design." A better design is an ice cream cone: "The container lasts a little longer than the ice cream in it."

Although more work is needed to bring the new plastic into large-scale production, chicken feathers could soon be moving from the coop to the cup.

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Provided by Inside Science News Service

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User comments : 6

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Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Apr 05, 2011
I knew about this research about 7 or 8 years ago. Took them long enough, lol.

I like this though.

Husky
not rated yet Apr 05, 2011
would be nice feedstock for 3d printers:

http://www.physor...ody.html

the use of biodegradable keratin for bodypart replacements would give a much broader range of use than nody alien inert sillicon , especially if one was able to print the keratin with a foamy cell structure so that the bloodvessels could grow into it
Husky
not rated yet Apr 05, 2011
there is softer more degradable alpha keratine, like feathers and hair but there is also beta keratin like in claws, nails, birdbeaks, beta keratin should be able to be processed or incorporated as/in a plastic as well

on my to do list: save all my nail clippings for the next 20 years, grind them and make my private billiard ball out of it
Eikka
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Isn't it a waste anyhow to spend energy in producing stuff that gets used for 15 minutes and then thrown away?

Making it biodegradable is just aspirin to a cancer.
DKoncewicz
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Isn't it a waste anyhow to spend energy in producing stuff...Making it biodegradable is just aspirin to a cancer.


So, what. Would you like your coffee to be poured directly into your cupped hands?

You don't really expect the food industry to use expensive reusable containers right? Yeah sure you could return the container after you're done using it but then the retailer would have to pay to sanitize it anyways, not to mention any health risks that come with handling pre-used food containers while also handing other food products. And what of customers who don't return the container back to the retailer? Should every product in the world cost dollars more if you don't happen to carry your own cup or plate everywhere you go?

Sure, plastic cups are not the most environmental products in the world, but they are sterile and very cheap to make. Often, the cost in properly cleaning a product so it can be reused uses more energy than making a new product, ie recycled paper
DKoncewicz
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Making these plastics biodegradable helps solve an environmental issue. Using products otherwise considered garbage helps with waste collection and storage issues. Using a renewable source to make it solves some supply issues. The only other thing to consider is how economical it is. Once it is cheaper than regular plastics I don't see a reason why I would want to not use it, short of it causing some unforeseeable health problems.