OAKLAND, CA — One of the byproducts of chicken production is feathers, and lots of them. About 11 billion pounds of feathers a year are produced globally and turned into low value feedstock or tossed in landfills.
A group of Australian researchers are working on another use for them, turning them into fiber that can be make into clothes and textiles.
Andrew Poole is heading up the team at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's (CSIRO) Materials Science and Engineering division.
The aim of the project is to find a replacement for the 84 billion pounds of petrochemical-based synthetic fibers produced annually, and the team is focusing on protein fibers instead of plant-based cellulosic fibers.
One protein fiber is keratin, which is what chicken feathers are comprised of and is also a main component of wool. Chicken feathers are an ideal choice for the research since they are abundant, there is a guaranteed supply and they are of consistent quality.
"Currently the feathers are practically seen as waste," Poole said. "They are rendered down as a low value stock feed or in some places, I believe, they are dumped. But, the feathers have really good chemical and mechanical properties and are systematically produced in a reliable production pipeline, a huge benefit for any industry that wants to use them."
To make the fiber, the researchers wash and dry the feathers (above left), grind them up, dissolve them, make them into a keratin solution (above middle) and then reform that solution as a fiber (above right).
"We can readily make a fiber that is bright white and quite fine by a traditional technique, but have found that fiber isn't strong enough," Poole said. "And so, we are doing some more fundamental work on how to make the material strong. To do this, we are producing films instead of fibers."
A benefit to using keratin, he said, is that it can be processed on current textile equipment and dyed with existing dyes.
Previous attempts with protein-based textiles were made from the 1930s-50s, when companies commercially produced fabric from milk, corn, soy and peanuts. However, they weakened when they got wet and also fell out of favor when synthetic materials were commercialized and offered better, consistent quality and a lower price.
Chickens - CC license by wonderjunkie; feathers, solution and fiber courtesy CSIRO