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Biocomposites Made From Feathers
October 29, 2010   
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Scientists from the Institute of Biopolymers and Chemical Fibers in £ód¼ have developed
a method for extracting keratin protein from chicken feathers. The protein can be used to make fibers or sponges for medical purposes.

The method was developed by a team of researchers from the Keratin Unit of the Institute of Biopolymers and Chemical Fibers in £ód¼, comprising Krystyna Wrze¶niewska-Tosik, Dariusz Wawro, Marzanna Marcinkowska, Antoni Niekraszewicz, Tomasz Mik, Danuta Ciechańska and Michalina Pa³czyńska.

The technology won a gold medal and an award from the Belgian climate and energy minister during the Brussels Innova exhibition last year. The scientists also won a bronze medal at the Concours Lepine international invention fair in Paris earlier this year.

According to the team’s leader, Wrze¶niewska-Tosik, chicken feathers are the cheapest and most cost-efficient raw material for extracting keratin. Chicken feathers are more than 90 percent keratin, Wrze¶niewska-Tosik says.

About 70,000 metric tons of feathers are produced in Poland every year, and they are not biodegradable. That poses a serious environmental problem. The method developed by the scientists from £ód¼ not only uses up at least some of these feathers, reducing environmental pollution, but also produces fibrous composite materials in the form of fibers or sponges used in medicine. Keratin is extracted from feathers in a weakly alkaline medium. The process takes about two hours. The keratin sediment is subjected to freeze- or spray-drying.

Keratin contains sulfur amino acids—cysteine and methionine—the presence of sulfur giving it antibacterial and antifungal properties. Hence the idea to use it as a component of biocomposites used in medicine.

Keratin protein is combined with fiber-producing biopolymers that have been used in medicine and cosmetics for a long time—alginate, cellulose and chitosan. This has resulted in biocomposites, fibers that can be used to make bandages and sponges. The latter can be used to administer drugs. It is also possible to make dressings that moisturize wounds so they do not heal too quickly and crack during granulation. The main advantage of these sponges and fibers is that they are nontoxic, easily biodegradable and have excellent sorption properties.

Paper-like material

The scientists from £ód¼ have also developed a method for making a paper-like material by combining cellulose and shredded feathers. The pulp can contain up to 66 percent of shredded feathers.

“The production process results in biocomposites resembling paper,” says Wrze¶niewska-Tosik. “You can paint on them, produce certificates for special occasions as well as cards, wallpaper or lampshades. An interesting effect is produced when they are combined with dried flowers.”

This type of paper has been tested by students from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, who painted works of art with water-based paints, such as gouaches and watercolors, on it. They found that after wetting, the paper did not become any less resistant or flexible. Its strengths include great durability and good color saturation. The paper can also be used in libraries storing early printed books that are open to attack from fungi and mold. Thin tissue paper with antibacterial and antifungal properties can be placed between the leaves of old books to prevent damage.

The scientists hope to develop insoles made from their biocomposite for sports shoes, as these would easily transfer sweat away from the feet.

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