Award-winning professor creates cow-less leather with chicken feathers

Professor Richard Wool, a 2013 US Environmental Protection Agency awardee, has devised a leather substitute out of chicken feathers, creating a manufacturing method that uses less energy and water

Richard Wool with an Eco-leather shoe
Richard Wool of the University of Delaware has developed an eco-friendly leather that can be used to manufacture leather shoes more sustainably, with less use of water and energy plus no hazardous waste. Image: Inhabitat

American academic Richard Wool is stepping into new territory, creating leather from chicken feathers for a more sustainable shoe production.

A professor at the University of Delaware, he developed a new type of material called Eco-leather, made from a combination of bio-based materials like discarded chicken feathers, flax, and vegetable oils, that is processed using techniques from aerospace engineers.

The result is not only a pair of shoes with breathable leather and sturdy soles, but also a manufacturing method that is unlike the usual petroleum-based processes. Traditional leather making or shoe-making uses a significant amount of water and energy, and causes pollution with its hazardous waste.

India and Bangladesh are two of the countries widely known for their toxic leather tanneries. Early in 2013, the Indian government had a committee investigate the state of water in the district of Unnao, which was severely polluted due to discharged effluents from surrounding leather tanneries, according to the India Environment Portal.

Wool’s work has the potential to change industries, and as such, he was presented with the 2013 Green Chemistry Award for Academic, particularly for “Sustainable polymers and composites: Optimal Design”, by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).

The agency recognised his work, part of his twenty-year research under the Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources program (ACRES) at the university. He is one of five in a list of Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Winners that also consisted of awards for greener synthetic pathways and for small businesses.

They said: “Professor Wool has developed several new bio-based materials that can be used as substitutes for toxic substances used to make high-performance materials, like adhesives, composites, and foams. The processes to create these bio-based materials yield less waste, require less water and energy, and are well-suited to mass production.”

With his start-up company Eco-leather Corporation, Wool is working with Nike and Puma to develop a sports shoe produced from non-toxic materials

His innovation can replace the typical fiberglass composite that uses either polymers or resin made with hazardous chemicals and inorganic fibres.

Wool’s eco-leather and other bio-based materials can be applied to various industries other than footwear, according to the ACRES program. The research group, focused primarily on the use of soybean triglycerides as raw materials, noted that potential applications for these eco-materials include the automotive industry, farm machinery, construction industry, and the defence sector.

In their work for footwear usage, Wool and the ACRES lab students collaborated with Professor Huantian Cao of the Fashion and Apparel Department at the University of Delaware.

Additionally, with his start-up company Eco-leather Corporation, Wool is working with Nike and Puma to develop a sports shoe produced from non-toxic materials, reported online innovation site Fast Co.Exist, who interviewed Wool.

The other advantage of the shoes – and the bio-composites – is that it also reduces waste, aside from eradicating toxicity and minimising water and energy use. The chicken feathers that otherwise ends up in landfills are processed with aerospace techniques, turning the fibres into the shoes’ soles.

“There about six billion tonnes of these chicken feather fibres that are a waste stream material, and a bit of a nuisance to the chicken processing companies,” said Wool.

The chicken feathers can also be converted to a softer material when combined with other natural fibres, plant oil resins and processed with heat and pressure. Part of what Wool has developed, and what the US EPA also credited, is his Twinkling Fractal Theory (TFT), which enables a more specific design at the molecular level.

The TFT helps “predict the functional properties of a material based on its molecular properties”, noted the agency. This allows Wool to assess the mechanical, thermal and toxicity properties of the materials for a better product and application.

Professor Wool, since 1992, has been awarded five patents for his safer materials, and he has applied for three more patents, noted the US EPA. “His discoveries led to the development of soy-based composites used to make boats, tractor panels, and wind turbine parts,” they added.

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