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A feather in agriculture’s cap: A surprising way to fight foreign oil dependence

By Doc Sanders


A new raw material has been discovered for making thermoplastics — and it comes from a source you may not expect. When I tell you what it is, you may say, “Horsefeathers!”

Traditionally, crude oil is the key ingredient of thermoplastics, which can be molded into any shape when heated. You find thermoplastics around home in everything from toothbrush bristles to car bumpers. It can be made tough enough to manufacture armor plating for a military tank — not that you’re likely to find one of those at home.

So, what’s the new raw material for making thermoplastics? Here it is: chicken feathers. Honest!

Chicken feathers have had few practical uses, except to keep chickens warm. And to stuff pillows. And they used to come in handy for chickens when they escaped my mother’s chicken house and evaded my grasp by flying up into a nearby tree. Plus, our old rooster seemed to take great pleasure strutting around and waiting for an opportune time to “flop” me as a little kid with his massive wings. (Ultimately, my mother fixed that problem. His drumsticks made for a delicious Sunday dinner.)

Also, you may remember from one or two of my previous columns, in which I have sung the praises of the cow, that chicken feathers can be processed into cow feed. Thanks to their unique digestive systems, cows can ferment the amino acids of keratin-containing feathers and convert them into nourishing milk and meat for us humans.

And that’s a good thing — except that the poultry industry produces 3 billion pounds of chicken feathers a year! That’s far more than cows can stomach.

In comparison, our appetite for stuff made of plastic is seemingly insatiable. At the same time, we have a growing need to cut back our diet of foreign oil. This has driven researchers to find a renewable source for plastic.

Yiqi Yang of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has worked out the process for developing thermoplastics from chicken feathers. Before she perfected the process, the perplexing part of her research was overcoming the tendency of thermoplastics made from chicken feathers to soften and lose their molded shape when exposed to water or rain. Yang solved this problem by adding methyl acrylate to the blend. Methyl acrylate, a nail polish ingredient, makes the thermoplastic stronger and more resistant to tearing than plastics derived from crude oil, soybeans or starch.

So, now every time you order a chicken dinner at the Colonel’s you can eat confidently, knowing you’re doing your part to reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil.

I’ll leave you with a parting note to ponder: If a scientist can figure out how to make plastic processed from chicken feathers resist water, how hard could it be to make a water-resistant chicken? If you’ve ever had to work around the odor of old wet hens like I have, you know it’s worth investigating.

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