Ecomaterials Lab: Creating plastics from chicken feathers

PopTech's weekly Ecomaterials Labs series is part of our ongoing, focused look at next-generation sustainable materials innovation.

Ecomaterials Lab participant and textile chemical engineer Yiqi Yang of the University of Nebraska recently presented a study to the American Chemical Society that described the creation of a new type of plastic polymer comprised of over 50% discarded chicken feather fibers.

This breakthrough has the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of petroleum used in the creation of widely-used plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene. And the process takes advantage of a ready source of waste as the U.S. produces 2-4 billion pounds of feathers per year.

"[Prior] technology uses keratin as an 'additive' to polyethylene and polypropylene. Our work turns feathers into something like polyethylene and polypropylene," Professor Yang told BBC News. "If used as composite materials, no polyethylene or polypropylene are needed. Therefore [the plastics] will be more degradable and more sustainable."

Yiqi Yang at the July 2010 meeting of the PopTech Ecomaterials Innovation Lab in Boston, MA.

Yang’s team combined the chemical methyl acrylate with the feathers, which are mainly comprised of the protein keratin, to create a thin plastic film. In addition to being lighter and more eco-friendly than traditional plastics, the film developed by Yang’s team also showed greater tensile strength than either soy- or starch-based composites.

Of course, the only real way to test the ultimate usefulness and assess the full ecological impact of the process is to create the plastics on a much larger scale. The idea itself, however, holds great promise as a significant addition to the palette of next-generation bio-plastics.

via Inhabitat

Image (top): Clarey Connolly
Image (bottom): John Santerre

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