Hydrogen fuel cell technology is full of promise, but it’s being held back by the problem of storing the dangerous gas safely and efficiently. Some U.S. scientists have been tackling this, and their solution is as ingenious as it is odd: Carbonized chicken feathers.
The University of Delaware team realized that the protein keratin, the main ingredient in chicken feather fibers, had fabulous properties when it’s heated. Basically the keratin creates very strong cross-links when it’s carbonized, and the feather fibers become extremely porous, which dramatically increases their surface area. As a result, the carbonized feathers can absorb huge amounts of hydrogen into their structure.
It’s a natural equivalent of some very high-tech attempts to create a safe H2 tank using carbon nanotubes and graphene, or complex metal hydrides. And here’s the kicker: The chicken feather tank would potentially store even more hydrogen than either of those two options, and cost enormously less to create. The science team estimates the feather solution would cost no more than $200, versus tens of thousands for a hydride tank, and millions for a nanotube version. Though it’s worth noting that these figures probably represent the cost to build these high-tech tanks now, while the technology is still young, experimental and, as such, expensive, those cost savings make the chicken feather solution incredibly tempting.
The current carbonized feather technology could easily create a 75-gallon hydrogen tank, which would power a car over some 300 miles, according to the team. They’re working on extending that range. And there’s just one question to ask: Would you feel a moral twinge when driving an eco-friendly vehicle that had tens of thousands of chicken feathers concealed in its gas tank?