London-based start-up Aeropowder is developing a method to turn thousands of tonnes of waste chicken feathers into useful materials, including an effective thermal insulator. Matthew Stock reports.
When it comes to ambition, these PhD students are no featherweights. They've developed a method to turn the by-product of our poultry industry into a versatile and useful material. Their patent-pending process breaks down the feathers into what they call Aeropowder. SOUNDBITE (English) ELENA DIECKMANN, PHD STUDENT DYSON SCHOOL OF DESIGN ENGINEERING, SAYING: "Feathers are a real wonder material. They are designed by nature to protect birds from really harsh environments. So they are super lightweight, they're thermally insulating, they're water-repellent, bio-degradable. So, it's a really great material. And our idea was how can we actually capture those properties and use them for novel applications that can help humans as well." Aeropowder can be moulded into a host of everyday objects, such as bicycle seats -- all of which are bio-degradable. But it's the thermally insulating properties they're really excited about. Their prototype insulator won them £20,000 at the Mayor of London's Low Carbon Entrepreneur Challenge last year. At their labs at Imperial College London the research still has a way to go. But with Britain alone consuming at least 900 million chickens a year, with around 2 thousands tonnes of feather waste every week -- there's no shortage of raw materials. SOUNDBITE (English) RYAN ROBINSON, PHD STUDENT FROM THE NATIONAL HEART AND LUNG INSTITUTE, SAYING: "We're working on the lab scale at the moment and our job is to figure out how we can transfer that to be able to create tonnes of Aeropowder that can be used in many different industries. And also, we've got to remember that poultry is eaten all around the world so there is real scale for growth here and potential for Aeropowder to be found all around the world wherever we're eating chicken actually." SOUNDBITE (English) ELENA DIECKMANN, PHD STUDENT DYSON SCHOOL OF DESIGN ENGINEERING, SAYING: "Our goal is basically to develop a full utilisation idea for the whole feather, so not only one part of it but different applications for different parts of the feather, that's the idea." Lab tests show Aeropowder to be low-cost and sustainable, they say, but just as effective at thermal insulation as other products on the market They're now looking for industry partners to perfect and test Aeropowder in the real world ahead of commercialisation. Success could have traditional insulation companies in a flap...but they're prepared to ruffle a few feathers along the way.