New plasma process could turn poultry industry trash into cash

Vijaya Rangari
Specialized carbon created from chicken feathers by a plasma process can be used to strengthen polymers or in battery and electronics applications, says Dr. Vijaya Rangari. Photo courtesy Dr. Rangari

Alabama’s poultry processing industry could turn its trash into cash with research underway at Tuskegee University.

The state’s poultry industry generates more than $15 billion in revenue annually and accounts for 65.6% of Alabama’s annual farming revenue, employing more than 86,000 workers on farms, in processing plants and in allied industries.

As a byproduct of producing over one billion birds per year, Alabama’s poultry industry creates millions of pounds of waste feathers that it pays to incinerate or landfill, part of the estimated 2 billion to 3 billion pounds of waste feathers annually generated in the United States.

feathers to fillers

Using an energized gas called plasma, Tuskegee scientists are able to turn those feathers into carbon fillers that can strengthen manufactured polymers or be used in batteries and electronics and that could turn an industry expense into a profit center.

“This process produces a value-added material from waste resources,” says Dr. Vijaya Rangari, a professor of materials science and engineering and the interim associate vice president for research at Tuskegee.

“We have been working on poultry waste to produce value added materials for the last 10 years,” he says. “We have produced several applications and value-added products from waste chicken eggshell. This was another waste that the poultry industry produces and has trouble with in disposal.”

With financial support from the statewide Future Technologies & enabling Plasma Processes (FTPP) grant managed at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), the researchers are using feathers to create fillers to strengthen polymers or be used in other manufacturing processes.

Polymers are large molecules bonded by chemical building blocks that are present in materials such as plastics, silicones, nylon, polyester and rubber.

trash to cash

“Our research shows that, instead of disposing of feathers in the soil, they can used as a high-value carbon source, even maybe for battery and polymer filler applications,” says Dr. Rangari, who has been at Tuskegee for 22 years and worked on the research with former graduate student Mohamed Zaheeruddin, who now works at Intel.

“We have converted the waste chicken feathers into highly porous nitrogen-doped carbon using a high temperature pressure autogenic reactor,” he says.

The resulting product can increase polymer composite properties.

“The functionalization is carried out using a low temperature plasma, which is part our current FTPP project,” Dr. Rangari says. “FTPP helped to establish low temperature plasma research at Tuskegee University.”

An Alabama coalition of nine universities and a research corporation, FTPP is supported by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). FTPP funds Alabama plasma research and commercialization while developing a high-tech statewide plasma workforce.

“We are currently working on using this carbon to functionalize with fluorine to create active sites for polymer composite and electronic applications,” Dr. Rangari says.

The scientists are gathering more data in order to apply for patents and licensing, he says. “We are in the process of making this carbon in large quantity and looking for other applications.”