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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service


item Barone, Justin
item Liebner, Christina
item Schmidt, Walter

Submitted to: Zootechnica
Publication Type: Trade Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 5/1/2005
Publication Date: 6/1/2005
Citation: Barone, J.R., Liebner, C.F., Schmidt, W.F. 2005. A feather in the cap of poultry producers. Zootechnica International. No. 6 p 24-28.

Interpretive Summary: There is over 5 billion pounds of feather waste generated by the U.S. poultry industry each year. Alternatives to land-filling the waste or making it into animal feed include cleaning the feather waste to obtain a clean source of the protein keratin. The feather keratin can be formed into value-added products such as mats, filters, composites, and polymers. Finding profitable alternatives to current waste management practices would keep poultry prices affordable and create new agricultural industries.

Technical Abstract: The U.S. poultry industry has struggled with this question: what to do with the five billion pounds of poultry feather waste their business generates each year? Scientists at USDA/ARS have some exciting options. About a decade ago, USDA/ARS researchers developed and patented a process to clean poultry feather waste and separate quill from the feather fiber portion. Featherfiber® Corporation, one of the newest players in renewable materials, from Nixa, Missouri, snapped up the licensing for the technology and opened a pilot plant. With potentially tons of clean feathers made available via this new process, what was once waste may now become a resource. The feather quill and fiber are pure sources of the structural protein keratin. This protein is also the core of the outer layers of most animals in the form of hair, hoof, horn, and feather. Biological evolution has demonstrated that keratin persists in hair and feathers (features that protect the animal), hooves (a feature that bears the animal's load), and horns (a feature that both protects and supports the animal) because it is tough, strong, and lightweight. What makes keratin so durable are 'cross-links' in the protein structure. To illustrate how cross-links toughen a material, automobile tires must withstand years of intense torque and are made of rubber strengthened by cross-links added during vulcanization. Keratin obtained from poultry feather waste has several advantages. First, there is a need for tough, lightweight materials. For example, automobile parts or construction materials must be lightweight and durable. Second, materials derived from an agricultural source are considered sustainable, while the more common materials derived from petroleum processing are not. As petroleum stocks deplete and prices begin to rise, the role of agricultural feedstock in the materials industry will become increasingly important.

Last Modified: 06/25/2017
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