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Chicken Feathers: Eco-Friendly "Plastics" of the 21st Century?

By Don Comis
February 9, 1998

"Plastics" was the career suggestion that alarmed Dustin Hoffman's title character in the 1967 movie classic "The Graduate."

Could chicken feathers replace plastics as an environmentally friendly investment for the 21st century? After all, fiber from feathers can literally replace part of the plastics in many products, according to Walter Schmidt, a scientist with the Agricultural Research Service at Beltsville, Md.

Earlier this month, Schmidt and ARS colleagues George Gassner, Mike Line, Rolland Waters and Clayton Thomas received a patent for a process for extracting fiber from feathers.

The invention could lead to feather-fiber substitutes for wood fiber and fiberglass as well as plastics. The process includes sanitizing and softening the fibers after their removal from feather quills. The key is the keratin, an animal protein fiber in all feathers and wool. Keratin, much stronger than plant cellulose fiber, has the strength of nylon and other synthetics.

Schmidt led the research team that found ways to add value to feathers, a byproduct of poultry production. At worst, the feathers posed a disposal problem, although they can be made into a marginally profitable feed additive.

The team has worked with industry on products from feathers. For example, various industries have incorporated feather fibers into test products for possible commercial production, such as biodegradable diapers, filters and insulation.

By hand, Schmidt has also beaten feather fibers to a pulp to make paper. His colorful samples show off this paper's unusual texture and dyeing properties. Schmidt also has samples of feather-paper plant pots and laminates of feather fibers blended with plastic. These composites could be used as insulation for homes and autos, molded into automobile dashboards and door panels, or turned into clothing and other fabrics.

Feather fibers can lower costs by replacing a portion of significantly more expensive plastic or fiberglass. They offer other advantages, too; for example, feather fibers are more absorbent than wood fibers.

Feathers for fiber can come from any bird. Commercial chickens, though, have built-in color control: They're bred to have white feathers.

Scientific contact: Walter Schmidt, ARS Environmental Chemistry Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5030, fax 504-6922,