A US-based team from the University of Nebraska has unveiled a key advance that improves the properties of thermoplastics manufactured from poultry feathers which allows the materials to perform when wet – something that had not previously been achieved.
Chicken feathers consist mainly of keratin - a tough protein also found in hair, hoofs, horns, and wool - that can lend strength and durability to plastics. Dr Yiqi Yang, from university’s Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources, said the mechanical properties of feather films outperform other bioplastics, such as modified starch or plant proteins.
“Others have tried to develop thermoplastics from feathers,” he added. “But none of them perform well when wet. Using this technique, we believe we’re the first to demonstrate that we can make chicken-feather-based thermoplastics stable in water while still maintaining strong mechanical properties.”
The water-resistant thermoplastic was developed by processing chicken feathers with chemicals, including methyl acrylate, a colourless liquid found in nail polish that undergoes polymerization.
This process resulted in films of what the scientists called “feather-g-poly(methyl acrylate)” plastic. They said the material has excellent properties as a thermoplastic, was substantially stronger and more resistant to tearing than plastics made from soy protein or starch, and as a first among chicken-feather plastics had good resistance to water.
Partners for scaling up
Dr Yang told FoodProductionDaily.com the laboratory work for the project had been completed and the group was seeking commercial partners to facilitate the scaling up process.
Thermoplastics, such as polyethylene, polystyrene, are used in a raft of applications including food packaging.
The discovery could open the door for the development of thermoplastics made from an abundant non-petroleum renewable ingredient for thermoplastics, said the team. Chicken feathers are cheap, readily available and abundant – with more than 3bn pounds (1.37bn kg) produced annually in the US alone as a by-product of the huge meat sector.
“We are trying to develop plastics from renewable resources to replace those derived from petroleum products,” said Yang, who presented the research last week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. “Utilising current wastes as alternative sources for materials is one of the best approaches toward a more sustainable and more environmentally responsible society.”