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A Hairy Way to Clean Up the Gulf Oil Spill

Alabama man is creator of follicle-filled device that helps mop up petroleum

While watching a televised report about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska back in 1989, Phil McCrory’s attention was drawn to an oil-soaked otter caught in the environmental disaster.

McCrory, who owned an Alabama hair salon at the time, marveled at how the animal’s fur had attracted so much oil that the water around its body was free of petroleum. An inquisitive soul, McCrory wondered if human hair had the same properties.

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That “aha moment” 21 years ago led to two patents and an oil-absorbing technique that’s being used to sop up some of the crude petroleum from BP’s runaway well that has fouled the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

After seeing the stricken otter on TV, “I decided to play around a little bit,” recalls McCrory, 64, a father of two. He began collecting shorn hair from the floor of his salon. After taking several pounds of fallen follicles to his Huntsville, Ala., home, McCrory purchased a children’s wading pool.

He had an experiment to conduct, and all the components were in place, except one. “One day I just called my wife and said, ‘I need to borrow some pantyhose,’ ” McCrory says. “She said, ‘OK, whatever!’ ” McCrory stuffed the pantyhose with hair clippings and introduced them to a mix of water and used motor oil that filled the wading pool.

Within a matter of minutes “the water was crystal clear,” remembers Sherry, 45, McCrory’s wife of 23 years. “I couldn’t believe it. His mind is always thinking about how something could be done differently. He’s always thinking outside the box.”

By 1989, convinced he was onto something, McCrory had filled an Alabama barn with 2 tons of hair clippings collected from various salons. Rather than simply rely on his observations from the oil-absorbing test he’d performed, McCrory reached out for independent validation.

“He got in touch with me a number of years ago,” says Roy W. Hann Jr., who taught environmental and water resources engineering at Texas A&M University for 45 years before retiring in May. McCrory “had this idea of using hair as an oil-spill absorbent, so he sent me a package of hair that had been encapsulated with some material,” Hann says.

“It works,” says Hann, 76, who taught a course on controlling oil and hazardous material spills. “The principle has been around for a long time, and it’s a surprisingly good oil-spill absorbent.”

Encouraged by the feedback he was getting, McCrory soldiered on and in 1995 was awarded a patent for a device filled with human hair that was designed to absorb oil from water. A patent for a mat made of human hair followed.

But the spectacular windfall most inventors dream of never materialized. As Hann had presciently cautioned McCrory, his products would need to be marketed and sold whether a major oil spill was afoot or not.

Being dependent on disasters doesn’t usually make for a good business model. So McCrory continued to style hair, a profession he’d entered in 1971 that allowed him to meet his wife when she was a customer in his salon. McCrory eventually sold both of his patents and retired from hair styling after 32 years.

NASA has tested his oil-absorbent, EPA-approved flotation device, known as OttiMat. McCrory says it performed well while combating a 58,000-gallon fuel oil spill in San Francisco Bay caused by a container ship striking the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2007.

Inspired by McCrory’s work, hundreds of volunteers in the Gulf of Mexico region the past few months have stuffed nylon stockings full of human hair in a bid to protect beaches and marshes from crude oil. (See sidebar.)

These days McCrory is a consultant for World Response Group, which bought both of his patents. The company sells the OttiMat as well as SmartGrow, a hair mat used to fertilize plants. Both products use hair from China.

McCrory owns shares of stock in the company and also receives royalties from sales, says OttiMat chairman and CEO Richard Holloway. OttiMat “is not really a deep-water product,” he says. “But once you get around the beach and the marsh area, it’s really an ideal product for that, because you can wring it out and reuse it a hundred times.”

McCrory had hoped that OttiMat would play a substantial role in the Gulf cleanup, but that wasn’t the case. The device hasn’t been warmly embraced by the oil industry in general, which baffles McCrory.

“This is environmentally safe, it has no chemicals, it’s 100 percent hair,” McCrory says. “You don’t get any greener than hair!”

Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.

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