Discarded chicken feathers could soon find a second calling in the plastics industry, thanks to recent work by scientists in the US and China. The researchers, led by Professor Yiqi Yang of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, developed a technique for turning feathers into plastic. They announced their breakthrough earlier this spring at an American Chemical Society meeting.
Each year in the US alone, over one billion kilograms of chicken feathers wind up in landfills, so recycling them as a key component in plastics makes sense. As Yang explained in a press release prepared by the American Chemical Society, “We are trying to develop plastics from renewable resources to replace those derived from petroleum products.”
The key ingredient in feathers is keratin, the protein that gives structure to skin, hair, and nails. The challenge was to transform keratin into thermoplastic, a form that is extremely useful because it can be repeatedly heated and moulded.
The team began with clean, pulverised feathers and added methyl acrylate, a key ingredient in nail polish, to make the keratin link together. Their thermoplastic product formed a film stronger than those made from starch or soy protein. Unlike previously attempted feather plastics, it also performed well when wet. As Yang explained in his prepared statement, “We believe we’re the first to demonstrate that we can make chicken-feather-based thermoplastics stable in water while still maintaining strong mechanical properties.”
Whether feather plastic is viable for industrial-scale production has yet to be seen. Renko Akkerman, technical director of the Thermoplastic Composite Research Centre in the Netherlands, told the BBC that making a product from waste is a step in the right direction, “but making the transition to mass production is a large one and only then can you truly grade the performance in terms of economics, carbon footprint, and so on.”
If all goes well, your future chicken sandwich could come packaged in a plastic of chicken feathers.
Posted on Monday, 16th May, 2011