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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Going Coo Coo for Chicken Feathers!!

You can bet that when Walter Schmidt, a chemist with the Agricultural Research Service, was a kid, he never told his Mom, "I'm going to study hard and go to college so I can spend all day making boats out of chicken feathers and playing with them!"

She probably would have made Walter clean up his room. But chemist Schmidt made the boat as way of cleaning up the world. The boat, he explains, is just an easy example of what could be made by mixing fiberglass with a major agricultural leftover: chicken feathers.

At ARS' Environmental Management and Byproduct Utilization Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, Schmidt's job is to study the size, shape and chemical properties of all kinds of substances and materials. Doing this with chicken feathers has led Schmidt to find valuable new ways to recycle the feathers. Toy boat building isn't really one of them, though canoes made of a fiberglass-chicken feather mixture are a possibility.

Why recycle chicken feathers? Well, do you know how many pounds of chicken feathers are produced by the U.S. poultry industry each year?

Each year, more than 4 billion pounds of feathers are produced by the U.S. poultry industry, enough to fill more than a billion pillowcases! Figuring out what to do with all those feathers can be a real headache! Most farmers throw them away, or they grind them up and mix them into animal feed to add protein to animal diets.

But Schmidt, as an environmental chemist, is always looking for ways to benefit the environment, such as by keeping mountains of feathers out of landfills.

Schmidt put a feather under a powerful electron microscope to get a close look at each piece or "barb" of a feather on a quill. Scientists use microscopes to view items too small for the naked eye. A regular microscope uses visible light to make an image. An electron microscope is much stronger. It uses electrons--particles tinier than atoms--to magnify images up to a million times or more!

What others see as feather, Schmidt sees as keratin fiber. Keratin is a natural protein, and it's in a lot more things than feathers. It's basically the same stuff that makes up hair, hooves--even your fingernails and toenails!

Under a microscope, each barb of a feather looks like a pipe, the leg of an insect or an elephant's foot, depending on the magnification.

Keratin is the same type of fiber found in wool. It gives wool clothes the ability to keep dry even in the rain. The keratin fibers in feathers are shorter and finer than those in wool, but just as strong.

Keratin fibers in chicken feathers are much stronger and more absorbent than wood fibers--called plant cellulose. Keratin also breaks down in landfills much faster than plastic.

Besides the model boat, Schmidt has tinkered with chicken feather fibers to make other things. Just a few of these are dyed paper, cloth, paper plant pots and air filters for buildings and cars.

Speaking of cars, Schmidt has also blended feathers and plastic to make materials that could be molded into auto dashboards and door panels. Do you think a car named the Cluckmobile would be a big seller, though? They may need to work on the name.

Insulation for homes is another possibility, says Schmidt. And, he has gone to different companies to see if they could use their machines to make new test products out of chicken feathers. So far, they've made diapers and filters as well as insulation.

Schmidt says the feather fibers can come from any bird. But commercial chickens have built-in color control: they're bred to always have the same white feathers.

Back to this boat business... Does it actually float? "It does," says Schmidt.

--By Don Comis, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff

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Last Modified: 2/14/2011
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