If there is any more worthless waste product than the four billion pounds of chicken feathers produced by our enormous appetite for poultry products, I don't know what it is. It would be great if we could stuff them into pillows, but down comes from geese.
Believe it or not, we turn feathers into low-grade animal feed by mixing them with water in a giant and inefficient pressure cooker. Scientist Walter Schmidt of the Agricultural Research Service in Maryland thinks he can make paper, cloth, plant pots and, yes, auto parts out of them, but it might take a while. Australian researchers want to wear chicken feathers, making them into high-tech sweat pants.
The keratin fiber in chicken feathers is even stronger and more absorbent than wood, and it breaks down in landfills far faster than does plastic or Styrofoam. Finding novel uses for chicken feathers is a pet project of Professor Richard P. Wool of the chemical engineering department of the University of Delaware. He had a very original idea: Why not use carbonized chicken feathers which resemble highly versatile (and tiny) carbon nanotubes to...store hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles. Picture very tiny natural sponges, which have a big weight advantage over metal hydride storage of this useful element. How great is that?
Wood enlisted Turkish-born graduate student Erman Senöz in the project, whose results were announced this morning at a conference in College Park, Maryland. "We started three years ago," Senöz said. The pyrolysis process very high heat without combustion in the absence of oxygen yields fibers "that are micro-porous, very thin and hollow inside like carbon nanotubes. They start forming at 350 degrees Centigrade, and above 500 C they collapse. We're trying to find the perfect temperature."
By the way, the fiber is from the central quill part, so the fluffy feathers are still available to force-feed livestock. Feather fiber is, of course, very cheap, and the "gas tank" equivalent would be too, costing only about $200. A carbon nanotube tank? How about $5.5 million. Metal hydride tanks, Wool says, are probably $30,000.
This process is not near commercialization, and hydrogen's extremely low density is a big issue. Wool says that, using the team's technology, a car would need a 75-gallon chicken tank to go 300 miles in a car. They're working on it. And the poultry-minded scientists also think they can make bio-based computer circuit boards and hurricane-resistant roofing from the same chicken fibers.
I love the idea of recovering stuff we usually dump into landfills. And since we produce billions of pounds annually, this is one waste stream that really needs to get diverted.
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