MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So no show about the future would be complete without at least one story on science, right? I mean, after all, each and every day scientists are making new discoveries that could change the world as we know it. And one of those scientists is Dr. Walter Schmidt. For 20 years now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture research chemist has been studying a particular problem, what to do with chicken feathers. Yeah, chicken feathers. But not just chicken feathers.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I mean, here, think about this, you have a chicken, right, and by the time that chicken is fully grown and ready to become, well, dinner, nearly seven percent of its weight is made of feathers. And since, according to the National Chicken Council, each American eats more than 80 pounds of chicken a year, we're talking about a lot of feathers. So what Dr. Schmidt has been asking is, what if all those feathers could be put to good use. Emily Berman visited Dr. Schmidt's lab at the sprawling USDA campus in Beltsville, Md. to learn about the unexpected role feathers may play in our future.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
The first thing to know about feathers is that they're very, very strong. Eight times stronger than wood. And if you try to tear them up using your bare hands, like really went crazy on a bag of feathers, you wouldn't get very far.
DR. WALTER SCHMIDT
And you can actually take feathers and put them in liquid nitrogen and take a hammer to it, nothing happens. And so I said, whoa, you should be able to make something from this.
I've just arrived in Dr. Walter Schmidt's office when he reaches into his desk drawer and pulls out a foot-long quill pen.
Do you actually write with that? Schmidt holds it upright and runs his fingers along the fibers. Feathers, he explains, are made from the protein keratin. It's the same protein that forms our skin, nails and hair. And, he says, it has a lot of economic value.
If you figure 2.5 billion pounds of feathers produced each year, if their value is comparable to polypropylene, which is like 66 cents a pound…
Polypropylene is a type of plastic.
…that's about like $2 billion worth of natural resources that are not being harvested.
Technically, the feathers are being harvested. They're bought up by the companies that make dog and cat food, sometimes livestock feed as well. You know when it says the food includes animal byproducts, that can mean feathers. This is banned in Europe, but not here in the U.S. And while these feathers are not going to waste, Schmidt says, we could be using them in a much smarter way. I asked how and Schmidt nods quietly, puts on his jacket and tells me to follow him to the lab. The lab is in a separate building a half mile away surrounded by roaming cows. There's a chicken-of-the-month calendar on the wall, right above a huge bag of feathers. Step one, Schmidt says, is to grab some of the feathers, clean them and chop them up.
If you put feathers in a food processor, all that happens is they spin around. They spin around.
So, he says, you have to put them in a metal contraption called a ball mill.
It's just like big marbles of heavy steel. And you put the feathers in here.
The balls clang together inside steel chambers, grinding the feathers down into tiny pieces. And about 15 minutes later you have something that looks like light gray baking flour.
Okay. I'm going to touch it. Oh, it feels like weird. It feels very soft.
That powder is dumped into a standing mixer, probably a lot like the one you have in your kitchen, where it's combined with glycerin.
It looks a little bit like honey, except for it's hotter.
The liquid is mixed in with a bit of plastic polymer and then cooled into long pieces that look like spaghetti. The spaghetti is cut up into pellets. And when Schmidt's ready to make the final product he reheats them, pipes them into a mold and there he has a flower pot. A feather flowerpot. But if you can make anything out of these feathers, why flowerpots? I asked Mark Teffeau, head of research for the Horticultural Research Institute. HRI is an association that's working with the USDA to get these flowerpots on shelves. Right now, he says, the horticulture industry is somewhat hypocritical.
MR. MARK TEFFEAU
We're supposed to be a green industry, but we have a lot of plastic pots.
Flowerpots are usually made from cheap plastic, Teffeau says, and thrown away to avoid cross-contamination between plant species. Biodegradable pots made out of a natural waste product could be a great way to cut back on plastic waste, plus, Schmidt chimes in, over time the keratin in the pots will be eaten up by microbes in the soil, effectively acting as a fertilizer.
Microbes see it and say, mmm, protein, and they eat it up.
While shopping their pots around, Teffeau and Schmidt have found other potential uses for keratin products. They could make building materials, fishing equipment, fertilizer pellets.
We really think that there's an opportunity for BBs, yeah, for BB guns. Millions of pounds of those are sold each year and they're metal. Instead of the spent shells laying all over the ground, they're something that biodegrades.
There's still no commercial partner who's come in to take this idea to the big time. Schmidt says he's confident this idea is too good to be ignored. There's a big, bright future ahead, he says, and it's all made out of feathers. I'm Emily Berman.
You can find pictures of Dr. Schmidt's feather flowerpots on our website, metroconnection.org. And hey, if you're an inventor or a scientist doing innovative research, we want to know what you're up to. Tell us all about it by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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