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Scientists Discover A New Material For Cleaning Up Oil Spills


Oil spills are often sopped up with synthetic, spongy materials, but researchers are looking to nature for more sustainable alternatives. NPR's Christopher Intagliata has more.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA, BYLINE: There's a good reason hair gets oily. It's because your hair follicles have little fat glands that ooze oil onto your hair.

DAVID HU: And so hair and oil are kind of like peanut butter and jelly. Oh, that would make a really bad sandwich. But they go together all the time.

INTAGLIATA: David Hu is a biologist and engineer at Georgia Tech. He says that oil is a good thing because it coats and protects your hair, and it helps animals waterproof their fur. Well, now scientists in Australia have taken a cue from nature to see how well hair and fur can absorb a different kind of oil - crude oil.

MEGAN MURRAY: I keep looking at my cats and wondering if they can be more useful (laughter).

INTAGLIATA: Megan Murray, an environmental scientist at the University of Technology Sydney. She says she's joking about the cats, but there is a whole lot of hair out there.

MURRAY: As long as we get haircuts and own dogs that need to be groomed, we're going to continually generate this waste stream.

INTAGLIATA: Murray's team put dabs of crude oil in petri dishes, either straight on the glass, on top of terra-cotta tile or on sand. Then they took mats of human hair and dog fur and pitted them against synthetic polypropylene fabric, which is commonly used to sop up oil spills.

MURRAY: It was just as good. We've done the science; we've run the numbers. And it performed just as well as polypropylene, which is our leading solvent at the moment that we use in disaster management.

INTAGLIATA: The details are in the journal Environments. A few caveats - hair and fur soaked up the oil well on glass and terra cotta but not on sand, which suggests that mats of hair might work on factory floors or roads but not so much on a beach. And previous work by Murray's team shows that hair sinks in the water, so it's not ideal for cleanup at sea. Then there's the issue of reliability, says chemist Chris Reddy.

CHRIS REDDY: In the middle of a battle like an oil spill, you want to have a very predictable material that is easily deployed and creates no uncertainty. And these natural products carry just a lot more uncertainty.

INTAGLIATA: He's at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and - full disclosure - the owner of a yellow Lab. Despite this uncertainty, he says, maybe hair can teach us how to make better materials. And Georgia Tech's David Hu says the study made him look at hair differently.

HU: As soon as I read this, the first thing I thought is, hey, I've been throwing away these little hairy rings that appear in the bottom my shower, but maybe I should just collect them in a jar and use it to clean my dishes.

INTAGLIATA: Or maybe you'll just have a little more patience when Fido and Fluffy shed their potentially valuable hair.

Christopher Intagliata, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.