Here’s a perfect example of analyzing a material’s properties, then exploiting them to solve a problem. In 1989 an Alabama man named Phil McCrory was watching footage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on television. The sad footage showed an otter drenched in oil–and McCrory observed that the water immediately around the otter contained less oil, as it had been absorbed by the otter’s fur.
This was noteworthy to McCrory, as he was a hairstylist. As he explained to NPR:
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And I was thinking, well, the otter was, you know, getting saturated with oil, then the hair that I sweep up should do the same thing. So basically, I took the hair home, put it in my wife’s pantyhose, created a little imaginary [oil] spill [in a kiddie] pool, and cleaned the water up. Within a minute and a half, I had the water crystal clear, and all the oil was in the pantyhose loaded with hair.
Inspired by the footage, McCrory gathered a bunch of hair clippings from his workplace, stole a nylon stocking from his wife and stuffed the hair into the stocking. He then filled a kiddie pool with water and dumped some motor oil into it. When he submerged his pantyhose-and-human-hair sausage into the pool, he found that it soaked up the oil.
Today McCrory’s company, Ottimat, harvests otherwise worthless human hair clippings–60 million pounds of it is discarded each year in the U.S. alone–to produce the nylon-stuffed sausages for oil spill cleanups. The sausages are chained together into long booms that are deployed around the affected area. McCrory’s partnered with a charity called Matter of Trust, which coordinates hair and animal fur donations through their Hair for Oil Spills program. Here’s how it works:
So what happens to the oil-soaked booms once they’ve done their job? It appears there’s no clear answer:
– BP has declined to use the hair booms, stating that “they’ve had some difficulties in the use and disposal of hair booms in the past;”
– the BBC reports that “the options tried by the charity include feeding the whole mess to worms to break down into fertilizer;”
– the same article points out that chemist Malcolm Fox tested oil-soaked wool and “recycled the wool mats by putting them through an old washing mangle to recover the oil, which could also be used again;”
– McCrory himself suggests that “The oil saturated bundles can be burned as fuel and energy value of the petroleum they contain can be recovered.”
Still, it’s a brilliant first step to solving the problem of oil spill cleanups. Now someone needs to step up and figure out what to do with the cleanup materials.