New bottom line: feather diapers Chickens: Researchers seek to recycle the poultry industry's leftover feathers into disposable diapers and building insulation.

March 18, 1998|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN STAFF

Walter Schmidt had a ticklish problem: what to do with the nation's chicken feathers?

The U.S. poultry industry produces up to 4 billion pounds of feathers each year, and Schmidt, a research chemist at Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, was assigned in late 1993 to come up with a way to dispose of them.

Schmidt and a team of four scientists think they have figured out a solution: recycle the feathers into disposable diapers and building insulation.

Chicken feathers are made of a fibrous protein called keratin, the same fiber found in wool, hair and fingernails.

The fibers are ramrod straight, which makes them absorbent enough to be used as a raw material in a $1-billion-a-year industry producing insulation materials, disposable diapers and air filters for trucks and factories, Schmidt said.

"My sense is that once people realize the viability of this as a product, the market will just take off with it," he said as he handled a piece of the hard, spongelike fabric produced in his lab.

Diapers, for instance, are made from chemically treated cellulose, which is the base material in many paper products.

But experiments with feather-made disposable diapers have proved promising.

Lixi Inc., an Illinois manufacturing company that makes specialized equipment for the diaper industry, agreed about 18 months ago to accept 500 pounds of chicken feathers, which had been plucked and washed by hand at Beltsville, to determine whether they could be used to make diapers, said Joseph Pascenti, president of Lixi.

The process worked well enough that Lixi wanted more feathers.

"If we had a supply of them, we'd be able to use them right now," Pascenti said.

To supply Lixi or any other manufacturer regularly with sufficient feather fibers, machinery must be designed and built that can pluck a huge amount of feathers, separate the fibers from the quills and wash them, Schmidt said.

"The time and labor involved in washing the feathers by hand and separating the fibers just doesn't make it cost-effective," said Schmidt, 49, of Beltsville.

The technology has yet to be developed but is in the works, he said.

The concept is far enough along that Schmidt and his team have been granted a patent on the fiber separation process from the U.S. Patent Office.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is advertising in trade journals for a manufacturer to build a pilot plant capable of separating fibers from quills and washing the feathers, he said.

"It's only a matter of time before the technology is developed," Schmidt said.

Recycling feathers is nothing new.

Most chicken feathers are ground up and used as an additive in chicken and cattle feed. But the feed is low-quality and unprofitable to produce, and about 3 million pounds of feathers are left over each year.

People have plucked, washed and used down feathers from ducks and other birds for pillows and parkas for hundreds of years, Schmidt said.

Down feathers have smaller quills than chicken feathers and can be easily ground up for such uses, he said.

Schmidt said his team's work means that usable feathers can come from any kind of bird.

Commercially bred chickens have an advantage, Schmidt said.

"They're bred to have white feathers, so you have that built-in color control," he said.

Schmidt's work began in late 1993, when he was asked by the nation's 120 chicken-processing plants to develop a way to dispose of the feathers

Industry experts credit Schmidt and his team with going a step further.

"What he was asked to do was find a way to throw these feathers in a hole in the ground and make them biodegrade. Instead, he came up with a way to use them over again. I take my hat off to him," Pascenti said.

Michael Blanchard, product-development manager for Tyson Foods in Springdale, Ark., said Schmidt's work might help the poultry industry keep down costs.

"What it should do is increase the demand for the feathers and raise the value of them for us," Blanchard said. "That's what we hope it would do."

Schmidt said the key lies in the chemical structure of the feather fibers, which have the same feel as microcrystalline cellulose, the base material used to make paper.

But their chemical composition makes them more absorbent than many paper-based products, Schmidt said.

"People don't think of feathers as fibers, but that's exactly what they are, and that gives them tremendous potential," he said.

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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