Inspired by an image from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, an Alabama hairdresser wants to turn discarded human hair into oil-sucking pillows for use in spill cleanup.
The hair will come from the floors of beauty salons all across America, said Phil McCrory of Madison, Ala. Now it just gets thrown in the garbage where it ends up clogging landfills at a rate of 200,000 pounds a day.
It's unclear if McCrory is Don Quixote off on a mad mission, or a man with an idea that will revolutionize oil spill technology.
Sandee McDowell, owner of Chez Ritz, a salon in downtown Anchorage, is betting on the revolution. An intense recycler, she is already boxing up her customers' discarded hair and mailing it south.
The idea came to McCrory, 52, while he was drinking coffee at home on his day off, watching CNN during the disastrous 1989 spill. At each commercial break, the now-famous photo of an oiled otter flashed on the screen.
Although he's never been to Alaska, the spill upset McCrory. ''I play golf,'' he said. ''I'm an outdoors person.''
McCrory doesn't know how long he stared at the oiled otter before he thought, ''human hair should do the same thing.'' That is, cause oil to stick to it -- a process called adsorption.
McCrory ran his own hair salon at the time and was used to acting on bright ideas. He had already designed and marketed a dispenser for permanent wave curl papers. He also invented a backyard golf game and helped his brother patent an artificial Christmas tree that hangs from the ceiling so cats can't knock it over. It's made from a graduated series of hula hoops.
''I think patents come to people like songs come to songwriters,'' McCrory said. ''I have ideas that are just wild. ... They seem like they just fall out of nowhere.''
So McCrory tested his hair theory in a backyard wading pool, using a pair of pantyhose stuffed with three weeks' worth of clippings collected from the floor of his salon.
He poured a gallon of used oil from a local lube shop into the water and in two minutes, all but a few drops were stuck to the hair ''pillow'' and could be lifed out of the pool.
''You have to understand,'' he said. ''I laughed. Who in the world would ever believe what I'm doing?''
On television Exxon was spending millions and recovering only a fraction of what it spilled, he said. McCrory was getting better results in his back yard with a giant hair ball.
Nine years, one patent, two tests by NASA, and $10,000 later, McCrory has sold his beauty shop, stockpiled a ton of bagged hair -- that's 2,000 pounds -- and is dickering with a Japanese company about a manufacturing deal.
It wasn't easy. It took four years of research before he even applied for a patent. Feathers and several kinds of animal hair had already been patented for oil cleanup, but no one had tied up human hair.
Over the years McCrory designed a net to replace the pantyhose and worked out a system with a parcel service to pick up boxed hair during routine deliveries to beauty salons all over the country. The salons won't get paid for the hair, but will receive addressed and stamped cartons so sending it is no trouble.
The pillows made from the waste human hair can be wrung out, washed and reused, or burned as industrial fuel, McCrory said. The recovered oil is usable.
Still, he had trouble getting business types to take him seriously. How could some guy in Alabama who has never seen an oil spill invent something better than the professionals? They weren't going to listen to a hairdresser, he said.
So McCrory appealed to a division of the NASA center in Huntsville that helps businesses transfer NASA technology to civilian uses. They also help people working on technology that NASA can use. ''All we had to do were two very, very simple tests,'' said Ed Medal, a NASA spokesman. ''It's up to him now. ... It's a very unique idea and there is some potential for us.''
NASA determined that human hair, on average, adsorbs five times its weight in oil. They put out a press release, and the media began to call, including the Discovery Channel. That's how the people at Chez Ritz learned about him.
''The hair can be permed or colored, as long as it's clean,'' said Chez Ritz owner McDowell, a serious environmentalist in a business that normally uses lots of chemicals.
''We kind of do quite a bit of polluting to keep ourselves lovely,'' she said.
She called McCrory and the two bonded immediately. ''He goes, 'Alaska, my God. I love it,' '' McDowell recalled.
At this stage, McCrory doesn't really need more hair. He's collecting from salons in the Huntsville area, which is enough for experiments and demonstrations. But he couldn't turn down hair from the land of his inspiration. ''It would be an honor to receive hair from Alaska to work on my project here in North Alabama,'' he said.
McDowell's customers, those who notice the special gray plastic wastebaskets for hair only, seem unfazed by thought of their snippings being shipped to Alabama.
''I just wish I had more to contribute,'' said Alicia Cook, whose daughters Cara and Audra used to take their hair cuttings home in a plastic bag and toss them outside for the birds to use in nest construction.
''We figured I could do a whole oil spill on my own,'' said Gloria Hanrahan. ''I have a lot of hair.''
So far no one has signed on to produce the hair pillows, but McCrory knows someone will. And the next best thing has happened. A producer of conventional oil spill equipment offered to buy his patent.
''They didn't plan on marketing it,'' he said. ''They want to buy the patent and shelve it. That's not what it's about. It's not about money. I love fish.''
He means to eat, not to catch. Nevertheless, the offer is a sign that he's on to something, he said.
Meanwhile, the raw material is out there, going to waste, getting snipped and swept and thrown away, costing money to discard when it could be used to help save places like Prince William Sound.
''Could you imagine New York City,'' McCrory said, excitement in his soft southern voice. ''Eight million people? How much hair they produce? I'd love to talk to Mayor Guiliani.''
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