Researchers Generate Clean Energy with Chicken Feathers

Leftover chicken feathers from poultry production

(Credit: ETH Zurich)

by | Oct 26, 2023

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Researchers have discovered a way to create clean energy-generating fuel cell membranes from chicken feathers, offering a cost-effective, environmentally-conscious alternative to conventional membranes.

The team of researchers, from ETH Zurich and Nanyang Technological University Singapore, found a method of extracting keratin from feathers and converting it into fibers used for fuel cell membranes. Conventional fuel cell membranes contain PFAS, chemical substances that have come under scrutiny for having adverse health and environmental effects.

Hydrogen fuel cells create emissions-free electricity from hydrogen and oxygen, only releasing heat and water. A semipermeable membrane is used at the center of every fuel cell.

Chicken feathers, a common by-product from processing poultry, are typically incinerated, releasing carbon emissions and toxic gasses such as sulfur dioxide. By instead repurposing feathers, these emissions may be avoided, also creating a more environmentally-friendly product for use in fuel cells. Further, the new membrane manufactured in the lab is reportedly three times cheaper than conventional membranes.

“I’ve devoted a number of years to researching different ways we can use food waste for renewable energy systems,” said Raffaele Mezzenga, professor of food and soft materials at ETH Zurich. “Our latest development closes a cycle: we’re taking a substance that releases CO2 and toxic gasses when burned and used it in a different setting: with our new technology it not only replaces toxic substances, but also prevents the release of CO2, decreasing the overall carbon footprint cycle.”

Repurposing Food Waste into New Materials, Energy

Along with this research team, a number of other organizations and companies have looked to food waste as a sort of raw material that may be used to create new products or generate energy.

Recently, research from South Dakota State found a method of using spent coffee grounds to make biodegradable films that may replace plastics. Nestlé has also planned a pilot program for reusing otherwise wasted cocoa shells from chocolate production as an alternative to conventional fertilizers.

In terms of energy generation, impact technology company, Divert, is to open a facility in Washington State that will be capable of converting 100,000 tons of food waste into renewable energy.

ETH Zurich and Nanyang Technological University Singapore researchers hope to join in on these efforts by commercializing their technology–the research team has filed a joint patent for the fuel cell membrane and is seeking investors to help bring it to the market.

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