Compounder Eastern Bioplastics LLC has found a new, untapped raw material source: poultry feathers.
The Harrisonburg, Va., startup is about to commercialize technology to mix plastics with some of the 3 billion pounds of leftover chicken and other poultry feathers in the U.S. to make what it says will be a cheaper, lower carbon footprint material for a range of applications.
“It's a byproduct, and unlike some other bioresins that are out there on the market, ours is the only one that doesn't belong in the food chain,” said President and majority shareholder Sonny Meyerhoeffer. “Nowhere in the food chain is it used other than for animal feed or pet food, and it's currently being pulled back from in the pet food industry.”
Eastern recently took delivery of its first commercial-scale extrusion line, an Omega 95 twin-screw extruder from Bangalore, India-based Steer Engineering Pvt. Ltd., which helped it develop the process. It has a lab-scale machine.
The new material will mix polypropylene or polyethylene with poultry feathers, with up to 50 percent feathers by weight, he said at NPE2012, held April 1-5 in Orlando.
Unlike some wood fibers, the feathers bind well to plastic because they are a keratin protein, similar to hair or nails, and can potentially produce a stronger and lighter material, the firm said.
Meyerhoeffer said the material can be used in auto parts, office furniture and simpler products such as plastic buckets. The firm also is seeking Food and Drug Administration approval to use its compounds, which would significantly broaden potential markets.
“It's a wide range of things it will be used for, anything that is hard and durable that is injection molded,” he said.
Eastern has some injection molding machines in-house, but it plans to make the material and sell it to injection molding companies. The firm also is interested in licensing the technology, and is looking globally, he said.
“We've had interest from all over the world, not only the resin side but in the licensing technology side, as well,” he said. “Our business model is, you won't have one big resin factory but you'll have little factories following the poultry business.”
Meyerhoeffer said he started Eastern after being approached by Justin Barone, who was then a researcher at the Department of Agriculture and is now a minority shareholder in the firm. Barone was on a USDA team that had done the initial research idea, but he had been unsuccessful in three tries working with other companies to commercialize it before an acquaintance connected the two men in 2007.
Meyerhoeffer said he was intrigued by the research. He had a background in the poultry industry, starting the Virginia Poultry Growers Association in Hinton, Va., as a venture to save 130 turkey growers and a processing plant with 500 jobs, and served as president of that group for three years. In 2008, he put together a business plan and formed Eastern Bioplastics. Today, the firm has 10 employees.
One of the challenges was creating a process that cleans the feathers, which are obtained from poultry processing plants, and can operate in a continuous, as opposed to batch, process compatible with extrusion.
Another challenge was to make it economical and energy efficient, “going at it in an economically viable sense so you weren't putting more energy in than what you're getting out,” he said.
“You have to end up at an energy-plus situation or you haven't accomplished anything,” he said.
The company has done some in-house life-cycle analyses and is commissioning independent LCA studies, but it believes the material can have a carbon footprint of up to 30 percent less than petrochemical-based plastics.
“That is huge for somebody looking at a building material and picking up LEED credits for energy-efficient buildings,” he said.