We usually think of fossil fuels as an energy source, but petroleum is also the raw materials used in all the world's plastics. Now leftover chicken feathers could allow us to keep using plastics in a world after oil.
The latest breakthrough is the work of researchers at the University of Nebraska's Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources, led by Dr. Yiqi Yang. His team have used chicken feathers to create thermoplastics - the type of plastic used for everything from soda bottles to car bumpers - and their alternative plastics stand up better than any previous attempt.
Dr. Yang explains:
"Others have tried to develop thermoplastics from feathers. But none of them perform well when wet. Using this technique, 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."
If these results hold up, it could solve two problems at once. (For the sake of the chickens, I refuse to call this killing two birds with one stone.) Beyond being able to replace fossil fuels as the raw material for plastics, this also allows us to get rid of waste feathers. Every chicken that is used for food leaves behind a few ounces of feathers, and that adds up very quickly - the United States creates more than three billion pounds of feathers every year.
Worse, there's no easy way to get rid of all the feathers. Some of them are used as inexpensive feed for animals, but it's not a healthy option for the animals and often promotes disease. Most end up either being incinerated or stored in landfills, and neither is a great long-term environmental option.
That makes chicken feathers a great option for replacement plastics, as Dr. Yang notes:
"We are trying to develop plastics from renewable resources to replace those derived from petroleum products. Utilizing current wastes as alternative sources for materials is one of the best approaches toward a more sustainable and more environmentally responsible society."
Chicken feathers are mainly made out of keratin, a particularly tough keratin that is already used to add extra durability to conventional plastics. These latest feather-based plastics aren't quite up to the standards of their petroleum-based equivalents, but they're already far more effective than other biobased options. The feather plastics already do a good job replicating the qualities of conventional thermoplastics, they're far more resistant to tearing than plastics made out of starch or soy, and the latest models are the first feather plastics that are strongly resistant to water.