November 3, 2003

 

 

US' Featherfiber Corp Believes Breakthrough Technology Could Turn Feathers Into Animal Feed Additive

 

An English-born mechanical engineer David Emery believes a revolutionary fiber made by separating plucked plumes from their quills could transform what has long been a worthless by-product into an abundant renewable resource.

 

Each year, the US' poultry industry is faced with 5 billion pounds of feathers, a quantity that quadruples at an international level.

 

But the conventional method of disposal, that is grinding the feathers into a semi-digestible animal feed additive, may soon be the target of federal environmental regulation.

 

Emery, president and CEO of Featherfiber Corp., licensed the U.S. Department of Agriculture's feather-to-fiber patent and has expanded the turbulent air-flow technology at his pilot plant in Wheaton, a small town in western Barry County. Samples for curious customers are made at the 10,000-square-foot plant, a nondescript metal warehouse along Missouri 86.

 

Emery aspires to mass-produce the fiber and market it worldwide, but clearing a series of financial and bureaucratic hurdles has proven tougher then he ever imagined.

 

"We're not getting anywhere too fast," Emery said. "I'm hoping to have the financial side wrapped before the end of this year. That's my goal. I don't want to start the new year thinking about the financial side. We can't afford to waste another year."

 

In August, Emery applied for a $1.4 million grant from the Biomass Research and Development Initiative, a federal program sponsored by the Department of Energy and administered by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. But the committee awarding the grants snubbed Featherfiber, much to the dismay of Emery and the team of USDA research scientists pulling for him.

 

"I just couldn't believe we didn't get it," Emery said. "USDA said it was one of the best applications that has ever been presented, but it didn't even get considered in the last round. Those guys at USDA were fit to be tied."

 

But the bad news hasn't broken Featherfiber's inertia.

 

"You don't stop when you're 80% of the way there," Emery said. "You just keep plugging in all directions. We've got to come up with the money. ... It's not something you want to drop because the more you get involved, the more you see the potential."

 

Those backing Emery say Featherfiber's potential is unparalleled.

 

Sturdier than wood pulp and 25 percent lighter than Fiberglas, the ultra-clean fiber - free of bacteria and allergens - is durable and highly absorbent. The unique combination of physical properties makes Featherfiber "a lucrative possibility for commercial activity," said Allen Kunkel, manager of regional development at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.

 

It's no surprise the likes of Honda, Rubbermaid and Sherwin-Williams are researching different applications for Featherfiber. Emery has pinpointed a half-dozen markets for Featherfiber, but thinks its potential is greatest as a reinforcing agent for composite materials.

 

Penske Composites in Nashville is one of several companies actively experimenting with material produced at Emery's pilot plant.

 

"It's ... a natural fiber product that has some very good properties when integrated into the structural urethane product. It helps us with our goal of trying to be eco-friendly," Herman Novak, Penske's executive vice president, told the News-Leader in August. "We think we can turn out a whole new product line based around feather fibers. We're looking at it for the building industry, the marine industry and the RV industry."

 

But before Featherfiber can tap into composite materials, or any other market, Emery still has to clear the most imposing financial hurdle yet: building a plant large enough to process 10,000 pounds of raw feathers an hour into 5 tons of fiber. The 170,000-square-foot plant is a mammoth capital investment, costing somewhere between $30 million to $40 million.

 

Emery has approached a major poultry producer and an American Indian nation about investing, but a firm commitment remains elusive. He's also exploring a partnership with New Markets Growth Fund, a venture capital firm in Maryland.

 

"Most of them want a 20 - 50% return, but sometimes it's the only way you can get something going," Emery said.

 

Lauri Garman, a livestock team leader with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, has also recommended that Emery contact another venture capital firm in St. Louis that specializes in agribusiness startups.

 

"I think he has a really solid idea, so ... I think there might be firms out there that might be interested in investing," Garman said.

 

Government officials working together with Emery are confident Featherfiber can secure the money needed to move beyond its conceptual stage. Besides, the USDA doesn't allow scientific breakthroughs of this magnitude to fall by the wayside, said Ron Buckhalt, special projects coordinator for the agency.

 

"It's not a matter of if, it's when," Buckhalt assured. "The interest is there. We're just at that critical stage right now. We need to be able to get enough material to these people. ... We've got some people on the eastern shore (of the Chesapeake Bay) that are chompin' at the bit."

 

Economic development officials with the Chesapeake Bay Region Technical Center for Excellence are well-acquainted with Featherfiber and are scouting a spot for the company's first plant.

 

Emery recently toured a piece of city-owned property in Hurlock, Md., with access to a rail spur. A nearby plot would accommodate an ethanol plant to make the food-grade alcohol used to clean the raw feathers.

 

"Ideally, I would like the first plant in or around here," Emery said.

 

The Missouri Department of Economic Development shared the same idea too. But Jane Hood, the agency's southwest Missouri team leader, said the department is limited in what it can do to advance Emery's enterprise.

 

"The problem we have are the types of funding ... we can assist him with are for job creation," Hood explained. "Right now, the issue is getting it off the ground."

 

Emery still has to figure out how to pelletize the finished fiber for shipment. This research would have been funded with the grant had it not been rejected.

 

Staffers for Sen. Jim Talent and U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt have told Emery they are seeking additional funding sources for Featherfiber.

 

In the meantime, Harry Danforth, technology transfer coordinator for the USDA in Beltsville, Md., said he's convinced Featherfiber will succeed and Emery's the reason why.

 

"Of the three (companies that originally licensed the technology), David has shown the most progress and has been the most innovative," Danforth said. "Without David, it would we dead in the water. He has the tenacity."