Where there are people, there are chickens. Pretty much every country on Earth has poultry or their eggs on the menu.
So, from Norway to New Zealand, and Cuba to Cambodia, chickens root around even the most isolated settlements, and fill giant farms in their thousands.
One result of a huge chicken population is a huge amount of chicken feathers, which are normally burned or taken to landfill, polluting the environment.
Ryan Robinson, a biology graduate from Imperial College London, is one of a duo that believes it might have come up with a different solution for this feathery waste.
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Along with designer Elena Dieckmann, Robinson has discovered a way to turn feathers into an insulating material for buildings or a packing material for food or medicine.
The pair has formed a start-up, called Aeropowder, to try and turn their invention into a commercial product.
“Aeropowder started as Elena's research project at university, where she was looking at new uses for waste in society,” says Robinson. “She started looking at hair as a source of keratin, but by far the greatest amount of waste keratin is found in waste feathers.
“In the UK alone we dispose of 1,000 tonnes of feathers a week.”
That’s only the tip of the iceberg – Robinson believes that across the world, 10,000 tonnes of waste feathers are produced every day.
BBC Designed visited Dieckmann and Robinson in their work space at Imperial College, where the pair works amid bales of chicken feathers collected from British farms and food processors.
These disposal methods do not make use of their amazing natural properties
“Currently feathers are mainly converted in this country to a low-grade animal feed called feathermeal,” says Robinson. During the lab visit, he picked up a handful of the pungent meal from a bucket to sniff. The powder smells like a cross between hops, blue cheese and sweaty feet – not exactly appetising.
This seems to be about the only product that uses feathers after they have been plucked. “Feathers can also be incinerated or put into a landfill. And these disposal methods do not make use of their amazing natural properties.”
It turns out that feathers are quite the wonder material. “Feathers are inherently insulating due to their structure, which is hollow keratin fibres,” says Robinson. Extra air in the fibres means less heat transfer. “What has been surprising is… how well the material has performed, and we hope to continue to make it better and better.”
Initially, the Aeropowder material – considerably easier on the nose than the animal feed – was ground down to a very fine powder. “As we continued we decided that the properties of the feathers themselves were also extremely useful – not just as an additive but when they were comprising the majority of the material.”
The current form of Aeropowder’s material looks much more like a compressed brick of feathers. It’s pliant and light and doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what it’s made from.
One question is how fire-resistant the material is – the issues around fire-proof construction materials have been put into focus in the UK since the Grenfell Tower fire in London which killed at least 80 people in June.
Feathers inherently do not combust as fiercely as synthetic products – Ryan Robinson
“The [Grenfell Tower] fire highlighted the need to live in safe environments,” says Robinson. “Feathers inherently do not combust as fiercely as synthetic products, however we are still investigating the best possible options to make this material highly fire resistant, and this product would not be released to the market before this has been independently verified and tested.”
Robinson says he and Dieckmann would try and find materials that were as natural as possible, in keeping with Aeropowder’s sustainable credentials.
“Building insulation has been a main focus,” says Robinson. “Our materials could be used on exterior walls, in between cavity walls or in the lofts. But we are also interested in insulating smaller consumer items… like food or medicine.”
Aeropowder isn't the first outfit trying to find a further use for this very common waste product. In 2011, researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the US suggested that chicken feathers could be used to help produce a biodegradable plastic. The ubiquity of chickens – on almost every menu, and stocking the freezers and chillers of food stores in every corner of the world – means that there is a potentially worldwide market.
The next challenge will be to find a way for this material to be made close to where the chickens are, rather than sending it far away to a processing plant.
“There is still work to be done to get our material tested and trialled with early adopters,” Robinson says. “But in the long term, we wish to become the world experts in feather-based materials. Our goal will be to enable the local manufacturing of sustainable products wherever there are feathers.”
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