A Backyard Solution to Oil Spills

Waste like human hair, sawdust and bird feathers can clean oil spills from water. PHOTO:  Nation of Change

Waste like human hair, sawdust and bird feathers can clean oil spills from water. PHOTO: Nation of Change

Biosorption is a property of certain types of inactive, dead, microbial biomass to bind and concentrate heavy metals from even very dilute aqueous solutions. And Nikhilesh Das discovered just this, at the age of 13, demonstrating reuse and effective waste management. Scalable models of these and we may just have a potent option to deal with oil spills that destroy marine ecosystems for years together.

Sometimes, the brightest solutions appear in the most unexpected of places, and this is exactly what happened with Nikhilesh. Three everyday incidents sparked some amazing ideas in him, leading him to conclude that there were indeed simple ways of removing oil from polluted water.

“Don’t search the Internet for solutions. Use your imagination and come up with your own idea,” Nikhilesh’s mother said to him when he got all worked up. This made him think of his childhood when his mother would oil his hair. “She would say that because I am short-tempered, the oil will keep me cool. I used to hate that. The oil would stick to my hair and not come off,” he remembers.

Nikhilesh wondered if human hair could help separate oil from water. He borrowed a beaker from his school lab and went to a barbershop to get waste hair. He mixed motor oil and lubricant with water and saw a layer of oil form on the surface of water. He then used hair to absorb oil from the water and, to his surprise, within 30 seconds, 90 percent of the oil was removed in the first attempt.

Head here for more anecdotes on three future lifesavers.

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