How greasy hair can dispose of slicks

By Jeff Hecht INSPIRATION struck an American hairdresser as he watched the rescue of an oil-soaked otter on television after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. If oil is able to coat animal fur so readily, Phillip McCrory wondered, could human hair clean up an oil spill? At his home in Madison, Alabama, McCrory tested the idea by adding a dash of motor oil to his son’s paddling pool and then dipping in a bundle of hair swept up from the floor of his shop and stuffed into an old pair of tights. When the hair soaked up the oil from the pool, McCrory took the idea to technology transfer experts at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in nearby Huntsville. Oil does not soak into hair fibres, but it does stick to scales on the surface of the fibres. A similar effect helps oil cling to the tiny hooks on chicken feathers (This Week, 11 April, p 16). But human hair works particularly well and is readily available. Feathers “don’t have nearly the adsorptivity of human hair”, says Maurice Hale, a NASA engineer who has been working with McCrory to develop the idea. The cleanliness of the hair is not an issue, says Hale, so they use hair straight from the floor of McCrory’s shop. While oil sticks to the surface of the hair, water quickly runs off the oily layer, leaving the oil behind. Hale and McCrory tested the hair filter with a mixture of three parts water to one of oil. After just one pass through the filter, only 17 parts per million of oil remained, making it clean enough to be legally flushed into the sewage system. Hale says that oil eventually drains out of the hair, allowing the filter to be reused. NASA estimates that the new technique costs 50 cents for each litre of spilt oil it cleans up,
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