Chemical Engineering PhD Student Discovers Innovative Solutions to Poultry Waste
A PhD candidate in UKZN’s School of Engineering and a Lecturer at the Ethiopian Institute of Textile and Fashion Technology at Bahir Dar University (EiTEX/BDU) in Ethiopia, Mr Tamrat Tesfaye, is researching innovative ways to turn billions of tons of feather waste from the poultry industry into useful products through the extraction of keratin.
Chicken feathers discarded during the production of poultry for human consumption is a big problem, since chicken feathers can pose hazards to human and environmental health as they often contain viruses and bacteria.
There is little demand for waste chicken feathers and most poultry producers dispose of more than five billion tons of feathers produced annually worldwide by burying or burning the feathers, or grinding them up for addition to livestock feed. Burning is the most common disposal technique, and can result in the release of 50 times more carbon dioxide than the coal industry.
Tesfaye, realising that feathers are a rich source of amino acids and keratin proteins, decided there had to be a better, more effective way of valorising these by-products.
He explained that proteins could be extracted from the feathers through a process involving (1) organic and inorganic chemical pre-treatment techniques to decontaminate the feathers, (2) extraction and characterisation of the keratin proteins, and (3) regeneration of keratin polymer for the production of valuable products using nanotechnology.
‘We plan to transform chicken feathers into valuable products to be used in the automobile and aeroplane industries, textile and clothing industries, cosmetics, biomedical engineering applications, construction, plastics and packaging, geotextiles, biofuels and hydrogen storage,’ said Tesfaye.
Keratin extracted from the feathers could be used as an ingredient in hair products due to its moisturising properties as well as being the source of synthetic fibres for the production of textiles, a more sustainable alternative to petroleum-based synthetic fibres.
According to Tesfaye, some textile fibres, like wool, are manufactured predominantly from keratin, making this use highly feasible.
‘In the near future, we might find ourselves wearing clothes made from regenerated chicken feather fibres, or driving cars made from chicken feathers,’ said Tesfaye.
He says scientists are also looking for lightweight, cheap and strong materials for use in the construction of the body and interior parts of automobiles and aeroplanes, to reduce energy consumption.
Aside from solving a considerable disposal problem, Tesfaye’s research could generate additional income for the poultry industry alone. This process could also open up new opportunities for entrepreneurs to process the raw product into these valuable components.
Tesfaye’s research is being undertaken with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and is being supervised by Dr Bruce Sithole of the CSIR and Professor Deresh Ramjugernath of Chemical Engineering at UKZN.