A recent study reported at the American Chemical Society meeting suggests that chicken feathers can be used in making more environment-friendly, lighter plastics.
Researchers at the US agricultural authority say millions of tons of chicken feather discarded each year can be a good source of basic materials for producing better plastics.
Feathers, like hair and fingernails, are mainly made of keratin which is a tough and chemically stable protein that can generate strength and at the same time reduce weight in the mixtures of plastics chemicals known as composites.
Professor Yiqi Yang of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, says using chicken feather fibers as a principal ingredient - makes up 50 percent of the mass of the composite, and therefore the plastics require less of the petroleum-based materials such as polyethylene and polypropylene.
"[Prior] technology uses keratin as an 'additive' to polyethylene and polypropylene. Our work turns feathers into something like polyethylene and polypropylene," Yang said.
"If used as composite materials, no polyethylene or polypropylene is needed. Therefore [the plastics] will be more degradable and more sustainable."
Yang's team processed chicken feathers and added a chemical known as methyl acrylate to turn them into a plastic.
They made thin films of the plastic and found that the films were tougher than comparable formulations using other biowaste materials and more resistant to water.
"Whenever you can use waste for a functional product, I'd say that's a good idea,” said technical director of the Thermoplastic Composite Research Center in the Netherlands Renko Akkerman.
“So using biomaterials, whether it's for commodity products or even structural applications, that's worth pursuing," he added.
Akkerman, however, said that the idea can be fully assessed if larger amounts of the composite are made and the energy costs of production are assessed.
"For each material you can do things at a very minor scale, 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,” he said
"Despite all that we should pursue things like these, try and use biomaterials - certainly if it's waste otherwise - and make something useful."