Photo Zoonar GmbH / Alamy


Decontaminate Water With Chicken Feathers

The properties of this poultry byproduct are handy for purifying water used in industrial processes

Photo Zoonar GmbH / Alamy
May 03, 2019 •

The Challenge: How do we address water contamination from energy production?

The Research: Use chicken feathers to remove contaminants from water

The Players: Post-doctoral fellow Muhammad Arshad and PhD student Irum Zahara working under Tariq Siddique, associate professor in renewable resources and Aman Ullah, associate professor agricultural food and nutritional science

No matter how you do it, it seems that producing energy affects water. In Alberta, there are tailings ponds around oilsands production facilities. In the United States, the Electric Power Research Institute suggested that some types of decommissioned solar panels be stored until recycling processes become available, to ensure toxic chemicals used in their construction never leach into groundwater. In Newfoundland and Labrador, concerns have been raised that hydroelectric projects might increase levels of methylmercury in nearby water. Renewable energy technologies promise to eliminate carbon emissions but their impacts on water still aren't fully understood.

How It Works: Feathers are more than 90 per cent keratin protein, made of a variety of amino acids. Feathers are strong because this protein is "cross-linked," but when you break those cross-links in the lab you create unravelled biopolymers with a high surface area that can adsorb, or stick to (rather than absorb, or take in) particles such as heavy metals.

Researchers wash the feathers, grind them into powder and treat them with modifying agents. Then they mix the powdery keratin biopolymer into industrial water, where it adsorbs contaminants. Then they remove the dirty biopolymer, leaving cleansed water.

Why It's a Good Solution: Until now, adsorbents have been too expensive. "There are many adsorbents that can be used to remove contaminants," says Muhammad Arshad. He's a post-doc in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences. "Few are as cost-effective as chicken feathers."

The Canadian poultry industry produces 1.2 billion kilograms of chicken meat a year. Along with that comes about 100,000 tonnes of feathers, Arshad says. "Most are landfilled or burnt, but we could use them." As the team continues to research, they could also find opportunities to recycle the contaminants caught in the feather biopolymer.

How Close Is It? Ready to roll. A team was able to extract arsenic from contaminated groundwater this way. After refinements, the adsorbents can now remove more than 85 per cent - in some cases nearly 100 per cent - of certain contaminants.

Next Steps: The team will test keratin biopolymers on water collected from the field, then refine them to take on new contaminants from other energy sectors. "If we develop cost-effective methods for decontaminating water before new technologies are adopted, we can prevent environmental impacts before there's a risk of them occurring," Zahara says. 

-with files from Kenneth Tam

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