Nearly four billion tons of chicken feathers are produced in the United States each year. They are generally incinerated, or fed to chickens and other barnyard animals. In February 1998, Walter Schmidt and his colleagues (George Gassner, Mike Line, Rolland Waters and Clayton Thomas) received a patent for a process for extracting fiber from chicken feathers. This fiber has many uses. This interview is real.

- - -

Q: How did you get started with all of this?

Schmidt: I was using magnetic resonance spectroscopy to figure out what, at the molecular level, made the physical properties of skin and tendons so different. I wanted to compare collagen to another natural biopolymer, and I thought: keratin… feathers.

I tried to grind the feathers into a powder, and it was really tough to do. Grinding does not work for the fiber, and only poorly for the quill. Essentially, one has to cut feathers into shorter units. Hmm, I thought, these are really tough, durable fibers. Why is no one using them?

In December 1993, I made paper from feather.

It was like being the first person to the opening of a huge cavern of stalactites and stalagmites. One wonders why no one discovered it earlier. No one really thought of feathers as fiber separate from the quill before, conceptually and/or practically.

Q: What are some of the things you made from feather at that early stage?

Schmidt: I combined the fiber with epoxy resins and made a toy boat. Clayton [one of five researchers working on the project] combined it with the commercial body putty used in fixing automobile body dents. We made flower pots and grew snapdragons in them. We made air filters, oil absorbent pads, designer papers and felt-like fabric. Once the concept is established, the choices of what to make are endless…

Q: What are some of feather fiber’s qualities?

Schmidt: Feather fiber is exceptionally strong. It has very good adsorbent properties, a decent melting point and the feel of down.

Q: How about the fiber’s qualities in, say, paper? Is it opaque? Does it have a feathery texture?

Schmidt: If one makes thin paper from feathers, light will pass through it. Actually, feathers are not white, but colorless, under the microscope. It is only the refractive index that gives feather a white appearance. The shiny green color in ducks and pheasants is not dye color, but a different refractive index. It’s a lot like the hologram imprinted onto your credit card.

Q: How many feathers does it take to make a pound of fiber, and how many pounds of fiber would it take to make, say, a dashboard?

Schmidt: Two pounds of feathers yields about one pound of the fiber fraction and one pound of the quill fraction. Perhaps 25% of the weight of a dashboard could easily be feather fiber.

Q: Feathers used to be made into a low-quality animal feed. Your fiber is of better quality — that is, higher in protein. Does this mean it will end up in people food?

Schmidt: It will most likely show up as “Poultry by-products” in dog and cat food, or in commercial animal feed.

Q: I read somewhere that it could potentially be used in diet drinks.

Schmidt: Actually, Carlo Licata already sells quill keratin — I think from turkey feathers — as a health-food protein supplement. He is the CEO of Maxim Inc., and is one of the licensees.

The fiber itself is highly non-digestible by mammals, and functions primarily as a fiber, e.g. Metamucil. It could, in principle, be added to breads to form a low-carbohydrate diet bread.

Q: You know the Maxim, Inc. guy? What’s he like?

Schmidt: He is an interesting fellow. We went to the same Insight 98 Conference in Orlando FL.

He would like to sell the quill fraction as a relatively inexpensive form of protein to the third world, as in Ethiopia.

He gave keratin tablet to AIDS patients who were losing weight, and they started to gain weight, which is to say: he has evidence that keratin is a nutrient. Another explanation of the same data is that people with AIDS have very bad diarrhea — taking the semi-fibrous keratin quill could simply keep the nutrients in the abdomen longer, enabling more to be absorbed. A good effect, but not necessarily by the mechanism proposed.

Q: Have you tasted the feather protein?

Schmidt: Actually, George Gassner, one of the inventors, deep-fried whole feathers. Under the right conditions, they turn the same color as french fries. The fiber has minimal taste. The quill is a little crunchy and takes on the flavor of any seasoning added.

Q: One important part of your process is the removal of the feather-hairs from the quill, as the quill is the weaker part of the feather. Could you explain this?

Schmidt: The quill is actually quite similar to fingernail, and the fiber is like hair. Hair is two-layered, made of parallel cylinders. At the molecular level, the quill is weaker and more brittle than the fiber. Thus, under the mechanical stress at which the quill breaks, the fiber just bends.

Q: Could you take us through the mechanics of the process by which the fiber is removed from the quill?

Schmidt: First, the feathers are cleaned. We use a water-soluble solvent like ethanol, which removes the soluble protein, dissolves the fat, and dries the feathers. The removal of the soluble protein and fats eliminates the food source upon which bacteria can grow. The smell associated with dirty feathers is from the soluble protein on the feather, and not from the feather itself. Feathers have no more smell than down feathers.

When the feathers are dry, a high-precision shredder cuts the fiber from the feather, forming a mixture of fiber quill chunks. An airflow system then passes the mixture down a smaller cylindrical tube with air flowing up the inside of a larger tube. This produces turbulent flow at the exit of the inner tube. The chunks of quill under turbulent flow keep going down where they are collected and removed. The fiber under turbulent flow stops and changes direction, capturing the upward flow out of the cylinder. The fiber is then further processed for the fiber length and fiber length distribution needed for the fiber end user who will be making the fiber end-product.

Q: My cousin in Louisiana wants to know what happens to the chickens after their feathers are taken. He asked if they get coats.

Schmidt: That is a simple one. One can make paper out of the feathers chicken shed when they molt. Chicken shed their feathers just like cats and dogs shed their hair. Chicken do not need to die to collect feathers.

Q: Where do you see this all going from here?

Schmidt: Once a commercial product is on the market and profitable, others will inherently figure out the value of feather fiber. I like having found the cavern, being able to share in the excitement. How someone will best make money from this and/or who should be making money from this is a totally different question.

I just had a strange, “Twilight Zone” thought:

Imagine going to Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the plates and plasticware would contain feather fiber, the cups would contain feather fiber, the french fries would be made of reconstituted feather fiber, and the chicken would be made from. . . tofu.

Q: Oh boy. That would be weird. Much like the things that happen on “The Twilight Zone.”