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Car Parts from Chicken Feathers?

By Don Comis
April 25, 2000

When a poultry processing plant in Southwest Missouri closed, who would have thought that the former plant's waste would become the new plant's main business? Soon trucks will be delivering loads of raw feathers from other poultry processing plants to be converted into feather fibers. Featherfiber Corporation, the new owner, is refurbishing the plant.

Before converting this plant, Featherfiber Corporation President David R. Emery contracted with a Michigan firm to make test runs of 8- by 10-inch sample materials, using Featherfiber, which eventually will be used to manufacture items such as filters, diapers, clothing, paper, absorbent pads and wipes, insulation and upholstery padding.

Emery is equipping the Missouri plant to produce 200 pounds of Featherfiber an hour. The company plans to eventually add plants around the U.S., each producing many tons per hour.

Two other firms--Tyson Foods, Spingdale, Ark., and Maxim Industries, Altadena, Calif.--also share rights to a U.S. Department of Agriculture-patented technique to turn feathers into a fiber that can be mixed with natural and synthetic fibers to form new products and to enhance the performance of existing fiber products.

Walter F. Schmidt, a chemist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service, is the lead scientist in the group that developed the technique. Schmidt is at the ARS Environmental Chemistry Laboratory in Beltsville, Md. The technique involves sanitizing the fibers, then removing them from feather quills. The protein fibers are as strong as nylon and finer and stronger than wood pulp. This gives feather products superior filtration, absorbency and durability.

Unlike wood pulp, the feather pulp doesn't require bleaching because commercial chickens are bred for white color. Both the feather fibers and the quills can also replace some of the plastic or fiberglass in products such as auto dashboards, door panels, ceiling lining, and other internal molded parts.

For every pound of Featherfiber produced, there's a pound of quills left over. Featherfiber Corporation will process the quills into protein for shampoos, hair conditioners, hair coloring, dietary supplements and other items.

Scientific contact: Walter F. Schmidt, ARS Environmental Chemistry Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5030, fax (301) 504-5048,