Oil spills on land have been a problem for a long time now. Often, spongy and synthetic materials are used to clean up spilled oil. However, researchers are searching for more sustainable substitutes and are turning to nature for the same. Researchers seem to have found their answer in human hair, as well as hair in general.
You must have seen how our hair can turn oily? This is because there are small fat glands in the hair follicles that tend to ooze oil onto our hair. A natural bio-sorbent hair is found to soak up 3-9 times its weight in oil. When oil from the follicles gets stuck to the fibers of hair, you have greasy, oily hair. Similarly, it can be made to adhere to crude oil and other types of oils.
Plenty of materials are used these days for cleaning up contamination, most of them being synthetic products with a lot of them being composed of polypropylene and plastic polymers or other types of harmful short term solutions. Now there is more of a push towards wool, cotton, and other natural materials – although these are very expensive, unlike hair.
When hair is used, which does not have any value after being cut from the head or the body, it is waste being recycled for good use. It may also be used for quite a few times with no significant reduction in the capacity to soak up oil.
In Australia, scientists have made careful studies to find out how well fur and hair can soak up oil of different types, crude oil in this case. Is it possible to get such a massive supply of hair necessary for soaking up so much oil? Researchers have assured that if humans and pets need to cut hairs and like to be well-groomed, a steady stream of waste hair can be generated.
An environmental scientist associated with the University of Technology Sydney, Megan Murray has got some excellent results with her studies on oil absorption by hair. Her team placed crude oil dabs in Petri dishes, on top of the terracotta tile, and directly on glass. The team took dog fur and human hair mats and pitted the same against synthetic polypropylene fabric used more often to soak oil spills up. The results came in, and the hair worked just as nicely as the polypropylene did, if not better. Unfortunately, polypropylene is the most common solvent used today for disaster management purposes. The research details have been published in Environmental Journals.
There are some reservations; however, fur and hair are being found to exceptionally soak up oil quite well if not better and more efficiently than its unsustainable competitor. This indicates that hair mats might be useful in oil absorption on road surfaces or factory floors, but are unlikely to be similarly helpful on a beach. In an earlier study by her team, hair was found to sink in water. Thus, it cannot be used for cleaning up spilled oil at sea.
Chris Reddy is a chemist who also mentions that the problem of reliability is also a factor. In case of a "war situation" that would involve oil spillage, only an extremely predictable material needs to be applied for oil cleanup, one that does not include any uncertainty. However, there is much more room for doubt when natural products such as hair are used. But Reddy says that hair could be useful in studies that lead to more research and discussion for new and sustainable methods even in the face of such uncertainties.
David Hu of Georgia Tech remarked that the study made him get a different perspective on hair's usefulness and usability. He said that all these years he had been tossing away the small ring-like hairs at the bottom of his shower, it might have been better to store the fallen hair in a jar, so he could use them for cleaning dishes. Even pet owners should start collecting their pet's fur and hair and use them for small cleanups.
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