Scientists have discovered a remarkable, unexpected and cheap way to store hydrogen fuel– using carbonized chicken feather fibers.
The problem of storing hydrogen as fuel has traditionally been a perplexing and expensive dilemma. For instance, a car with a 20-gallon hydrogen storage tank made from carbon nanotubes or metal hydrides– two of the best ideas so far– would add $5.5 million or $30k respectively to the price of that vehicle.
A storage tank made from carbonized chicken feathers, however, would only mark up the cost a measly $200. The green bio-material would also help solve the problem of how to dispose of the 2.7 billion kilograms of chicken feathers generated each year by commercial poultry operations.
One of the major reasons hydrogen-powered vehicles aren’t commonplace on our highways is the immensely difficult problem of how to store enough of the fuel on-board to give those vehicles a cruising range that approaches that of gasoline or diesel fuel. Storing sufficient quantities requires placing it under extreme pressure, which can add significant weight to the vehicle and increase the potential for a dangerous explosion.
That problem has led scientists to look toward structures like carbon nanotubes for a solution, since they can pack large quantities of hydrogen at normal pressure within a fairly small space. The catch is that manufacturing carbon nanotubes is very expensive and ultimately impractical.
Enter scientists at the University of Delaware, who while researching the potential of keratin derived from chicken feathers to improve the performance of microcircuits, unexpectedly discovered that by heating the keratin fibers they could strengthen its structure enough to compare to the strength of nanotubes. In other words, the hydrogen storage capacity of the strengthened keratin was essentially equivalent to that of carbon nanotubes, but using nothing more than chicken feathers as raw material.
In addition to hydrogen storage, the new method could turn chicken feather fibers into a number of other eco-products like hurricane resistant roofing, lightweight car parts, as well as the aforementioned bio-based computer circuit boards.
Furthermore, utilizing this technology would be recycling at its best. Previously, there has been no major use for all the feathers leftover from chickens in the poultry industry.
Bryan Nelson has been making up for lost time since finishing his graduate degree in Philosophy by traveling and working to change the world. He has worked with groups like The Sierra Club, Environment America & U.S. PIRG, Environment Oregon & OSPIRG, and Progressive Future on local and national political campaigns. His environmental journalism can be found throughout the web, which also includes regular contributions to MNN.com. Between adventure and activism, he currently can be found doing freelance writing from his home in Portland, Oregon.