MILLIONS of tons of chicken feathers are wasted every year, but researchers at Lund University in Sweden have found a way to turn them into proteins for food use.
Biotechnology professor Rajni Hatti-Kaul and researcher Mohammad Ibrahim were seeking ways to use waste products in new ways. They identified a strain of bacteria from a chicken farm in Egypt (belonging to Ibrahim’s parents) which can break down the feathers into a soup of small-chain peptides and amino acids in a hydrolysis process.
The feathers are placed in flasks with water, salts and some of the bacteria, and incubated. As the bacteria grow, they digest the feathers. The process is benign, requiring no harsh chemical additives. The conversion rate is very high, with 1 kg of feathers producing 900 g of proteins and amino acides. Hatti-Kaul and Ibrahim say that the process could also handle many forms of slaughterhouse waste and other organic waste products such as fish scales.
One day, the amino acids and peptides could end up in new products directly on our plates, but for now, the researchers say they could replace fishmeal and soy protein in animal feed, improving its environmental credentials. Concerns have been raised by environmentalists about the impact of fishmeal demand on ocean fish stocks, while soya beans are largely imported to Europe from South America, and so have a relatively large carbon footprint.
“If we continue to gnaw away at the Earth’s resources and spit out waste at the rate we do today, we will need 1.6 planets to survive. But we only have one Earth. Therefore, we need to find new, smart and creative ways to reuse waste to a greater extent,” said Hatti-Kaul.
The work has not yet been published in a scientific journal but the researchers have formed a spin-out company, Bioextrax, to develop the process and make useful products. They hope to have fully optimised the process by the end of 2018, and have received funding from a number of agencies including Nordic Innovation and the Sten K Johnsons Foundation.