Use a chicken, save a tree

Almost every part of a chicken can be used, from boneless chicken parts to specially shaped nuggets. Now, previously ignored chicken feathers may have a new use in today’s world. Agricultural Research Service chemist Walter Schmidt developed a technique to turn chicken feathers into paper and strong, less dense plastic composites for products such as car dashboards and boat exteriors. The Environmental Quality Laboratory scientist also found feather fiber can replace some of the wood pulp used to make paper products such as air filters and decorative paper. Because chicken feather composite paper is made of 51 percent feather fiber and 49 percent wood pulp, only half as many trees are needed.

Because of its super fine size and shape, filtration may be the first commercial venue for processed chicken feathers. Most filters are made from wood pulp, but feather fiber has an advantage--it is finer than wood pulp. Wood pulp filters have a width of 10-20 microns, while feather fiber filters’ thickness is 5 microns. Thus filters made with feather fiber will have smaller holes, resulting in more spores, dust and dander being removed from the air and trapped in the filter. Air filters in homes and office buildings could benefit from such fine filtration, lessening allergies and sick building syndrome. Another possible use would be vacuum filters, reducing the amount of spores and dust that can irritate asthmatic lungs. The technology has been patented and three companies have acquired licensing rights and are developing marketing strategies. Two pilot plants are in operation turning feathers into fiber, a process that begins by removing the light feather material from the hard, central part of the feather, the quill.

One of the licensees, Featherfiber Corporation President David Emery, is marketing the fiber to be used in lightweight, sound-deadening composite materials for use in office cubicles, cars and sleeping compartments of tractor trailers. A large scale facility, projected to be complete in two years, is in the design phase and will be located in southwest Missouri. When complete, the Missouri plant will produce about five tons of feather fiber per hour, up from the pilot plant production of 200 pounds per hour.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

By Sharon Durham, USDA--ARS

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