WHERE THE BEST IDEAS TAKE WING
by: Julie Rawe
A S ALCHEMY GOES, THIS ISN’T THE MOST GLAMOROUS OF experiments. No one is turning straw into gold here or even water into wine. But David Emery is on a mission to convert the poultry industry’s trash—feathers, basically—into heavy-duty cash. Every so often a few tons of wet, filthy feathers are delivered to the abandoned factory Emery bought in Wheaton, Mo. (pop. 712). Emery, an industry veteran who specialized in removing meat from bone, sends the glop through a maze of machinery he cobbled to-gether to clean, dry and position the feathers for slicing. Finally, a giant contraption with three vacuumized tubes separates the quills from tiny bits of now pristine feather fluff. Here’s where it gets really interesting: this airy fiber, it turns out, is remarkably strong. It’s as sturdy as nylon, 60% lighter than fiberglass and can be used to make everything from auto parts and medical devices to dollar bills and termite-proof building materials. A few weeks ago, a leading tire-maker joined a gaggle of FORTUNE 500 companies that have expressed interest in using the material after Emery, 62, scales up production.
Another offbeat entrepreneur trying to create the next big thing? Well, yes. But it just so happens that this project was first hatched by the U.S. government. And the agency that licensed the technology to Emery is one of the most wide- ranging and innovative laboratories anywhere on the planet. Its name (don’t laugh): the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). In its 50 years of existence, ARS has provided the genius behind a world of commercially successful products, including permanent-press cotton, Pringles, Lactaid and pretty much the entire frozen-food aisle.
For an old-school laboratory lumped under the sprawling U.S. Department of Agri-culture, ARS keeps pumping out high-tech solutions to a broad array of problems, ranging from the urgent (how to eradicate plant and animal diseases) to the less pressing (how to duplicate the tangy taste of San Francisco’s sourdough bread outside the Bay Area). Along the way, the agency has won numerous patents for breakthrough mechanisms, like the one pending for turning peanut shells into hydrogen fuel and another for harnessing chicken manure to remove metals from polluted water.
When the agency began in 1953, its primary mandate was to seek methods for increasing food production. Since then, ARS scientists have helped find ways to double per-acre wheat production and triple cows’ milk output. But now that we produce far more food than our collective maw can swallow—and more than we can export—ARS is setting its cross hairs on new challenges. One-fifth of the agency’s $1 billion budget goes to “utilization research” to employ unused agricultural products in places other than landfills. That’s where the feathers come in: America’s appetite for poultry yields about 5 billion pounds of plucked plumage a year. For many ARS researchers, the future is all about waste, particularly as an alternative to petroleum. The feather project, for example, can replace some of the fossil fuels used in plastics. Likewise, a surplus of soybeans inspired researchers to develop SoyScreen as an alternative to petroleum-based sun-screens. At ARS’S ’s flagship facility in Beltsville, Md., bio-diesel, derived from vegetable oil, powers fleets of tractors and lawn mowers for the farms and even heats some of the buildings. Indeed, petroleum is prohibited in the carpeting (which is instead held together by soy-based urethane). The only permissible hand soaps and cleaning products are plant based. And in the parking lot, says Justin Barone, one of two ARS researchers devoted to feather-fiber research, “you’ll see a lot more bicycles and Toyota Priuses than SUVS.”
As ARS pursues a green agenda, workers at the agency’s 100 or so labs across the country are demonstrably patriotic in their quest. “We’re trying to help American farmers, help our country, make us less dependent on foreign oil,” says Greg Glenn, an ARS engineer in Albany, Calif. The agency gets little public recognition, and that’s just fine . It sticks to the science and leaves product development and marketing—and the glory—to others. Glenn invented some non-food uses for wheat starch, including a biodegradable version of Styrofoam food containers. His work is being incorporated in various products at EarthShell Corp., a disposable-food- packaging company based in Santa Barbara, Calif. But when commercial production of the wheat-based plates and bowls begins next year, consumers will see only EarthShell’s name on the label. There will be no reference to ARS. “We don’t want the USDA to appear as an endorser,” says Ed Knipling, the mild-man-nered plant physiologist who runs ARS. “We don’t brand our products:’
As a result, the agency’s 2,500 scientists tend to toil in anonymity, despite their contribution to popular commercial culture. I’m constantly amazed how few people know we exist,” says Glenn. “When I told someone recently that I work for the USDA, she said, ‘Oh, so you’re a meat inspector, are you?’”
ARS is eager to raise its profile in the business community, however, by passing out information-packed CD-ROMs at trade shows and signing up thousands of executives to receive e-mail updates on new technologies available for licensing. But the driving force isn’t cash; ARS collects a mere 2 million a year from royalties. Rather, ARS offers companies exclusive production rights so that the firms them-selves will cough up the money to bring the products to market. The payoff for America’s farmers: every $1 the government spends on agricultural research translates on average into an extra $1.35 in sales of agricultural products.
For the future, the agency is concentrating in part on products that will contribute to the battle against obesity. In addition to coneocting low-calorie fat substitutes, ARS researchers are working to make healthy food more nutritious and more convenient The trick, of course, is getting us not to eat too much of it. As for Emery’s Feather-fiber Corp which licensed the feather-separating technique from ARS five years ago, it’s continuing to tweak the production method at its headquarters in Nixa, Mo., while seeking investment for a full-scale factory. Emery has already demon-strated several applications for the fiber, and the math should work in his favor: a pound of raw feathers is worth about 2 cents , but could fetch roughly $1 as processed fiber. “I strongly believe,” Emery says, “that in a very short period of time, processed poultry feathers will be worth more per pound than poultry meat” Then again, the technology is still in its infancy, and feather fiber could wind up as the next frozen-milk concentrate, an earlier ABS innovation that was supposed to put an end to those late-night runs to the store for milk. That’s the risk of trying to be ahead of your time.
--—With reporting by Leslie Whitaker/Wheaton
TIME Magazine, Inc.
October 11, 2004. (Pgs. 68-72)
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