Apr. 24, 1998 Most folks with oily hair use shampoo to get the oil out. But one Alabama hairdresser likes oily hair and is working with NASA to use human hair to soak up oil spills. Researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, are testing this hair-raising recovery technique for oil spilled in water.
The idea is the inspiration of Phillip McCrory, a Madison, AL, hairdresser. McCrory was watching television coverage of 1989's oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound. "I saw an otter being rescued whose fur was saturated with oil," said McCrory. "I thought, if animal fur can trap and hold spilled oil, why can't human hair?"
In a home experiment, McCrory stuffed five pounds of hair he'd cut into a pair of his wife's pantyhose. He tied the ankles of the hosiery together to form a ring-shaped collection bundle. Then, filling his son's wading pool with water, he put the hair- filled ring of hosiery into the center of the pool and poured used motor oil into the middle.
"When I pulled the legs of the hosiery ring together, the oil had adsorbed onto the hair inside of it," McCrory said. "I couldn't see a trace of oil in the water." McCrory found that human hair adsorbs -- rather than absorbs -- oil. That is, instead of bonding with the hair, the oil gathers in layers on the hair's surface. This allows for easy recovery of the oil and its reuse by simply squeezing it from the collection bundles.
"When I wrung the hosiery out, most of the oil was recovered," said McCrory. "The remainder was broken down and disposed of when I washed the hosiery with detergent."
Before McCrory invested more time and money into his idea, he needed to determine that his was an original idea -- that no one else had thought of this solution. He researched and found patents similar to his idea that involved using sheep's wool and duck feathers. Wool and duck feathers, however, are commodities in demand for items like clothing and insulation and don't adsorb as well as human hair.
"After doing my research," said McCrory, "I realized I'd found a commercial use for what's really a waste product. Tons of human hair are cut every day and tossed into landfills." Because some samples of human hair have been found that are thousands of years old, McCrory believes using it to clean up oil spills would both put it to work and reduce the amount of waste material going into landfills. Furthermore, oil-saturated bundles of hair can be burned as fuel and the energy value that the collection bundles contain can be recovered.
McCrory, who lives near Marshall, approached the Center's Technology Transfer Office with the proposal that NASA test his idea under controlled laboratory conditions. Marshall agreed because its researchers believed it had potential use by NASA and other U.S. government agencies.
Successful preliminary field tests also influenced Marshall's decision to test McCrory's system further. In an initial test, David Glover, a chemical systems supervisor for Marshall contractor BAMSI, Inc., filled a 55-gallon oil drum with 40 gallons of water and 15 gallons of oil. "The mixture was filtered through nylon bags filled with hair," said Glover. "When the water was tested after just a single pass through McCrory's innovative filter, only 17 parts of oil per million parts of water remained."
McCrory estimates that 25,000 pounds of hair in nylon collection bags may be sufficient to adsorb 170,000 gallons of spilled oil. Preliminary tests show that a gallon of oil can be adsorbed in less than two minutes with McCrory's method.
There's also a potential cost savings in McCrory's method. Present oil cleanup methods cost approximately $10 to recover a gallon of oil. McCrory's system may cost as little as $2 per gallon and offers the additional benefit of being able to use the recovered oil for fuel. McCrory has founded and is president of his own company, BEPS Inc., of Madison, AL.
Tests of the new system are expected to be completed later this spring.
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