Seeking good uses for chicken feathers

Published Oct 26, 2015


Tony Carnie

DURBAN: Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble…

There are no eyes of newts, toes of frogs or poisoned entrails being tossed into chemical beakers in this University of KwaZulu-Natal chemical laboratory.

Nor any Shakespearean witches or thunder.

Instead, dressed in a clean white lab coat, Durban chemical engineering student Tamrat Tesfaye is busy disinfecting and dissolving piles of old chicken feathers as part of an experiment to produce chicken feather shirts and socks, chicken feather automotive parts, chicken feather shampoos and chicken feather who knows what.

Tesfaye, who is also a lecturer at the Institute of Textile and Fashion Technology at Bahirdar University in Ethiopia, is studying for his PhD at UKZN under the supervision of CSIR researcher Professor Bruce Sithole and UKZN’s Professor Deresh Ramjugernath.

Worldwide, the chicken industry generates more than 5 billion tons of feathers each year – most of which are burnt, buried or crushed up into fertiliser.

“Currently, chicken feathers are mainly seen as useless waste. So why not try to turn this ‘waste’ into something of value?” Tesfaye asks.

Things like chicken feather suits, chicken feather cosmetics or chicken feather biofuels.

“Chicken feathers are actually rich sources of keratin proteins and amino acids, and my research is aimed at extracting keratin proteins and turning them into high-value products.”

Because of their moisturising properties, the keratin proteins could also be incorporated into shampoos and conditioners and hair-loss products. Chicken feathers, much like woollen fibres which are 90 percent keratin, could also be spun into fibre.

“Thus in the near future, we might be wearing clothes made from regenerated chicken feather fibres,” he declares.

Being lightweight and strong, Tesfaye believes, the fibres could also be useful in making fibre-reinforced polymers for aircraft, cars or the space engineering industry.

But when the feathers arrive from the chicken broilers, they are contaminated with viruses and bacteria and must be decontaminated before keratin proteins can be extracted.

Tesfaye also thinks they could be used as substitutes in the paper and filter industry.

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