RESEARCHERS AT NASA’S MARSHALL SPACE Flight Center in Huntsville are testing an Alabama hairdresser’s hair-raising technique of using human hair to soak up oil spills. This could lead to a number of applications, including reducing landfill waste, saving costs in oil spill cleanups and recovering spilled oil for fuel.

Madison, Alabama, hairdresser Phillip McCrory was watching television coverage of 1989’s oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. He saw the oil-saturated fur of a sea otter and asked himself, “If animal fur can trap and hold spilled oil, why can’t human hair?” He conducted a home experiment using five pounds of human hair he had cut, collected and stuffed into a pair of his wife’s pantyhose tied into a ring. He filled his son’s wading pool with water, put the hair-filled hosiery ring into the center of the pool and poured used motor oil into the middle.

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, allowing for easy recovery and reuse of the oil by simply squeezing it from the collection bundles.

McCrory researched and made sure his solution was unique. He found patents similar to his idea that involved using sheep’s wool and duck feathers for in-demand items such as clothing and insulation, but they do not adsorb as well as human hair.

“Human hair thousands of years old has been found in landfills, and tons of human hair cut every day are tossed into landfills,” McCrory said. Using the hair to clean up oil spills would both put it to work and reduce the amount of waste material going into landfills, he believes. Oil-saturated bundles of hair can be burned as fuel, and the energy value contained in the collection bundles can be recovered.

Researchers at Marshall agreed to test McCrory’s idea under controlled laboratory conditions for 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 is 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, Alabama.

For more information, contact Liz Rodgers at Marshall Space Flight Center.
Call: 256/544-2647, Fax: 256/544-3151, E-mail: elizabeth.b.rodgers@
Please mention you read about it in Innovation.