Will the well-groomed businessman one day be wearing a chicken feather suit?
A group of CSIRO scientists is busy piecing together a nanotechnology puzzle that may one day turn waste chicken feathers into wearable fibre.
CSIRO research scientist Andrew Poole said globally, about five million tonnes of chicken feathers are rendered into stock feed or landfill each year.
Feathers are rich in keratin, a tough, chemical-resistant protein that is also the key component of wool. Wool and feathers, however, have a different biochemical makeup.
Scientists at CSIRO’s Material and Science Engineering laboratory at Belmont, Vic, don’t want to spin wool out of feathers, but they do believe that the keratin can be “regenerated” into an environmentally sustainable, biodegradeable fibre.
Dr Poole is quick to say that CSIRO are hoping their product will only compete with synthetic fibres - not with wool.
“We hope to be saving oil, rather than competing with existing natural fibres.”
Chicken feathers are produced in huge quantities—giant United States chicken processor Pilgrims Pride has the capacity to slaughter 45 million birds a week—but the by-product feathers are used in low-value industries, if they are used at all.
Dr Poole’s group wants to fill in the seemingly small gap between this existing feather supply chain and a textile industry already well-experienced in using keratin-based fibre.
Only the gap is not so small.
The scientists have to first work out how to break down the molecular bonds between feather protein strands without breaking down the strands themselves, Dr Poole said.
That achieved, they have to straighten the separated proteins, align them, and re-bond them in a way that will form a fibre resistant to the wear and tear delivered to all textiles.
The CSIRO team thinks it may be able to bond the protein strands using a specific clay nanoparticle containing “galleries” that the strands can penetrate.
If the penetration is good enough, the nanoparticles may be able to carry much of the stress that would normally be placed directly on a protein strand subjected to stress as part of a fibre.
Success on this project could take months, it could take years, Dr Poole said—if success comes at all, although the team is confident it’s headed in the right direction.
And whether success delivers a fibre that excites designers of fine apparel, or can only be used in industrial textiles, remains to be seen.
Either way, it will put a different spin on chicken feathers.