Human Hair: A Highly Absorbent Material to Clean Off Oil Spill
The recent oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico had caused a lot of worry among those affected. A lot of damage has been made to the coastal and marine areas, threatening the aquatic life support systems that sustain people who are highly dependent on the productivity of the oceans. Aquatic life was severely affected as a result of more than 20 million gallons of oil leak.
What has been done so far to remedy the situation? British Petroleum (BP) tried to contain the flow by plugging the damaged rig with mud. Clean-up vessels using oil dispersants and 150 commercial fishing boats helped oil recovery. A robot was sent underwater to plug the leak. Along the shorelines, mops were used to clean up the oil.
Do you know that the mops used to clean off the oil are made up of human hair? Why is it used? What is in the human hair that makes it effective oil absorbent?
A Madison, Alabama hairdresser Philip McCrory popularized the hair-as-an-oil-adsorbent concept way back in 1989. He experimented with human hair as an oil sponge to soak up a mock oil spill he created in his son's plastic pool. The water was clean within minutes.
McCrory approached NASA scientists in Alabama regarding his findings. Researchers experimented with a hair oil filter to clean up 55 gallons of oil-water mix. They found out that indeed human hair effectively reduced the concentration to just 17 parts per million or two drops of oil per 55 million gallons. This was applied to the Exxon Valdez oil spill and estimated to have soaked up 11 million gallons of oil using 1.4 million pounds of hair.
How Hair Adsorbs Oil
Human hair is a very efficient oil adsorbent. It gathers oil from scalp, the face, and places where oil is produced. Hair "clings to" to the many tiny scales of each strand of hair instead of soaking up as what absorbents do. This is the reason why people shampoo to remove oil where dirt has also gathered. Each strand of hair has a great amount of surface area. It is not really soaking up the oil but the oil is coating the outside of the hair strand.
How Can Hair Be Used as an Oil Spill Adsorbent?
Hair can be stuffed into tubes of recycled nylons and tied together to surround and contain an oil spill. For industrial quantities, hair is now manufactured into hair mats and has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use. When oil is contained in the stuffed tubes or hair mats, it is possible to recover the oil and used again although these are conventionally incinerated.
Among the different approaches to clean up oil spills, hair is the most environment-friendly. So if you have long hair or operates a hair saloon or knows somebody who has a lot of hair, it’s time to contribute them to environmental organizations helping out to clean the oil leak-affected areas. You may register at www.ExcessAccess.org. The hair will be woven together by a group called "Matter of Trust" into a hair mats that will help soak up oil wherever these are needed.
If it took about 1.4 million pounds of human hair to soak up 11 million gallons of oil in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, then it would take more than 3 million pounds of human hair to soak up more than 20 million gallons of oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. How much hair can you donate?
How Common are Oil Spills?
According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Energy report, 1.3 million gallons (4.9 million liters) of petroleum and oil are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year. A major oil spill could easily double that amount.
A more recent report from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, between 10 and 25 million gallons of oil are spilled in the U.S. These oil spills occur from the production, storage, transport, and use of oil. This oil not only contaminates the soil, but also the creeks, ponds, lakes, rivers and the oceans.
Not only are hair saloons and barber shops, but also dog and cat groomers sending their hair to companies that will use the hair to soak up oil spills.
BBC News, 2010. How can hair mop up the oil spill? Retrieved on June 6, 2010 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8674539.stm.
Mongabay.com, 2010. Human hair offers eco-friendly way to battle Gulf oil spill. Retrieved on June 6, 2010 at http://news.mongabay.com/2010/0502-oil_spill_hair.html.
©2010 June 6 Patrick A. Regoniel