Mushrooms vs. the Oil Spill
November 30, 2007 2:37 PM   Subscribe

DIY activists have been using human hair mats to soak up the carcinogenic bunker oil that's been washing onto Bay Area beaches since the spill. Now they're inoculating the oil-soaked mats with mushrooms that will break down the oil into harmless compost. See also: fungi breaking down plastics, synthetic dyes and organopollutants generally. A bit more from mushroom guru Paul Stamets. (If you're so inclined, here's a link to donate to the non-profit that coordinated the hair mats.)

Disclosure: I know one of the folks doing the beach cleanup. She's awesome.
posted by serazin (46 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Were they portobello mushrooms?
posted by fandango_matt at 2:40 PM on November 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


(see tags)
posted by serazin at 2:43 PM on November 30, 2007


Awesome.

Somewhere along the way, someone thought that human hair might make a good oil absorber. Someone else figured out that mushrooms will turn oil-soaked hair into non- (or at least less-)toxic dirt.

This is a little scary, but also cool:

In Japan, scientists recently showed that a slime mould can repeatedly navigate a maze in the most efficient manner to capture nutrient sources with the least amount of cellular production, suggesting a form of cellular intelligence.
from the "a bit more" link above
posted by rtha at 2:50 PM on November 30, 2007


More on hair mats.
posted by maryh at 2:52 PM on November 30, 2007


Rock the fuck on. I knew our psilocybin creating overlords wouldn't leave us to destroy ourselves completely. They have deemed our messes a great opportunity to infest more of the world with their great fractal intelligence.

What? You mean I'm not supposed to eat them?
posted by daq at 2:53 PM on November 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


this is very very cool--and it seems these things are more effective than traditional methods (which seem to totally suck)
posted by amberglow at 2:56 PM on November 30, 2007


Interesting, but only worthwhile if you can process a lot more than a 55 gallon drum's worth.
posted by electroboy at 2:58 PM on November 30, 2007


Hair is a traditional oil adsorbent. adsorb= oil sticks to it. I believe that synthetic adsorbers are a new thing.

Also, I love Paul Stamets. Here's an early article on him working on using oyster mushrooms to breakdown sarin nerve gas agents. His presentations feature pictures of oyster mushrooms breaking down lots of things, including couches and books. Also, there is a Fungus Fair this weekend in Oakland, CA if anyone's interested. small>
posted by small_ruminant at 3:04 PM on November 30, 2007


of course, real punishing punishment would cut down on oil spills a lot--it's not surprising the focus isn't on preventing them, sadly.

Key facts about oil spills

(and Exxon and the Valdez thing is still in court--years later)
posted by amberglow at 3:05 PM on November 30, 2007


Yes, electroboy, I was just going to say that, even though this seems like a marvellous idea, and I'm sure the people doing it are all great, it just seems a little out of balance: 58 000 gallons spilled versus 275 gallons (5 barrels of 55) cleaned, at a cost of $10,000. (the donated shrooms). Excluding, I presume, everybody's time (free) and transportation.
posted by Laotic at 3:08 PM on November 30, 2007


I <3 Paul Stamets
posted by Matt Oneiros at 3:08 PM on November 30, 2007


But there are millions of pounds of hair produced each year and thrown out, Laotic. Good ideas start small and grow. Mushrooms!
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:14 PM on November 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Fascinating stuff. Great post.
posted by mkultra at 3:14 PM on November 30, 2007


this could totally scale up easily, and i could see fishing boats all having supplies of this everywhere, let alone the coast guard...you just need a supply chain involving barbers--maybe to start with it could be like what those wig places for cancer patients that get donated hair do?
posted by amberglow at 3:18 PM on November 30, 2007


From Smartgrow.net:

One of the main benefits realized in the NASA experiment was that oil could also be recovered from the hair. Human hair does not "absorb" (or soak in) oil as does cloth, but rather it "adsorbs" (or holds on to) it. A product such as a polypropylene mat "absorbs" oil, and the oil bonds to the material, so much so that the oil cannot be extracted. But with the OttiMat the oil is "adsorbed", meaning that the oil is adhering to the surfaces of the hair. The mat can be wrung out for re-use 100 or more times. In fact, during an oil spill cleanup, up to 98% of the oil can be recovered. Each cubic foot collects 7.8 Gallon per 2 and half minute per use.

This is extremely cool.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 3:19 PM on November 30, 2007


Laotic writes "Yes, electroboy, I was just going to say that, even though this seems like a marvellous idea, and I'm sure the people doing it are all great, it just seems a little out of balance: 58 000 gallons spilled versus 275 gallons (5 barrels of 55) cleaned, at a cost of $10,000. (the donated shrooms). Excluding, I presume, everybody's time (free) and transportation."

Yes, extrapolating that out: Hair Mat cleanup costs - 2.1 Million dollars for 58,000 gallons. Estimated costs using current methods: 50 million dollars.

I know this is an exaggeration of the differences, and I'm sure that this isn't an accurate comparison, but good grief people. Do we have to shit on the implementation of every new idea when it doesn't provide the perfect, instant solution?
posted by never used baby shoes at 3:20 PM on November 30, 2007


Yeah, this seems kind of pointless if they can only deal with %0.0047 of the waste (and I'm guessing that figure is actually inflated quite a bit). While human hair shouldn't be too hard to get a hold of, the mushrooms may pose some difficulty. Can't we just chuck all the oil in a salt dome somewhere or burn it?
posted by phrontist at 3:30 PM on November 30, 2007


I'm just glad they're using the mushrooms to take the oil out of the hair instead of this stuff, which never worked for shit on my older sister's greasy teenage mop.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:31 PM on November 30, 2007


For folks concerned about scale:

Keep in mind, this project in SF is being put together by a small group of volunteers who have some expertise in mycology. They have zero help from the EPA or from the corporation that was hired to handle the cleanup. This will in no way be enough to clean up the whole spill.

What it (hopefully) will do is serve as an important demonstration project. If these folks, with zero money and very little official support can pull off this project, doesn't it follow that large scale clean up efforts can then, in the future, use the same methods?
posted by serazin at 3:34 PM on November 30, 2007


This makes me wonder what a bastard child of hair and mushrooms would be capable of.
posted by Autarky at 3:38 PM on November 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Locks of Environmental Love?
posted by DMan at 3:40 PM on November 30, 2007


Yes, let's have barbers collect DNA samples of all of their customers. What could possibly go wrong there?
posted by flarbuse at 3:46 PM on November 30, 2007


Have you protected your bathroom drain against oil spills? I have!
posted by Free word order! at 3:46 PM on November 30, 2007


small_ruminant: I think it's only "traditional" if that includes things developed in the 90s.
posted by hattifattener at 3:50 PM on November 30, 2007


Flarbuse, you take home your hair clippings now?
posted by nomisxid at 3:53 PM on November 30, 2007


My grandparents knew it worked and they were dead in the '90s.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:02 PM on November 30, 2007


The Bay Area will have the world's biggest Jheri curl.
posted by Falconetti at 4:06 PM on November 30, 2007


But then hair used to be used in all sorts of things it isn't now- stuffing furniture and making your stucco details earthquake-proof are two things that spring to mind. (The Culinary Academy in San Francisco did the stucco when it was built quite a while back.)
posted by small_ruminant at 4:07 PM on November 30, 2007


Also, they (including my grandparents) didn't use human hair ever, I don't think. That part's new to me.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:16 PM on November 30, 2007


If these folks, with zero money and very little official support can pull off this project, doesn't it follow that large scale clean up efforts can then, in the future, use the same methods?

No, not at all. Solutions are tied to the scales at which they operate. One immeadiate issue is that squeezing a dozen rafts of hair can be done by hand to sequester the oil. When you need thousands, and you need to be squeezing them constantly (without damaging their integrity) you have a whole new problem on your hands.
posted by phrontist at 4:33 PM on November 30, 2007


From hattifattener's linnk:
McCrory estimates that 25,000 pounds of hair in nylon collection bags may be sufficient to adsorb 170,000 gallons of spilled oil. Preliminary tests show that a gallon of oil can be adsorbed in less than two minutes with McCrory's method.

Now that is promising and imposing at the same time. Collecting and bagging that much hair may be tricky, but it's totally worth a shot (I bet you could get it in a week or two from a few major city's barbershops).
posted by phrontist at 4:39 PM on November 30, 2007


Now if such useful fungi exists, probably some kind of sealife exists which is able to accelerate/facilitate the breakdown of spills. It's only a matter of having the oil industry invest in it. The incentive would be that if you clean it, you don't have to pay for its cleanup at otrageous inflated costs.

From this point of view, the lawsuits shouldn't be targeted at punishing Exxon or others for their violations of laws or unability to comply with the law, but for the unability to repair the externalities/consequences of their actions. The lawsuit shouldn't end up with Exxon et al paying billions , because it would happen years later and at a comparatively cheaper price than cleaning up or investing in research ; actually lawsuit could be economical and unexpensive.

The oil company should carrying the burden of their responsability until the effects are removed, by financing a potentially eternal sinkhole of money that should be invested exclusively into fixing their mess. I guess that's sufficient motivation and incentive to invest into prevention, instead of a silly lawsuit making only some lawyers richer and socializing the cost with hard to evaluate costs for society as a whole.
posted by elpapacito at 4:50 PM on November 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


There is already a system in place in some countries (notably China) for the collection of human hair for the production of L-Cysteine. Yum
posted by bottlebrushtree at 6:20 PM on November 30, 2007


When you need thousands, and you need to be squeezing them constantly (without damaging their integrity) you have a whole new problem on your hands.


Except that in this case, they're not squeezing them at all.

Now if such useful fungi exists, probably some kind of sealife exists which is able to accelerate/facilitate the breakdown of spills.

Well, fungi are pretty specialized to break down certain compounds. Oyster mushrooms happen to be very good at breaking down lignin, by dismantling long chains of hydrocarbons. I understand there are ocean-based microorganisms that are good at decomposing the remaining small bits, but they can be very specific as to what they will actually break down. However if the compounds are too diluted the microorganisms will instead look for other "food" that requires less energy to break down. Supposedly genetic engineers are trying to develop a microorganism that is less specific in it's eating habits.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:50 PM on November 30, 2007


small ruminant, i was considering going to the fungus fair, especially since it's a couple blocks from my house. MeFiMa if you want.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:52 PM on November 30, 2007


Ugh, I meant to type by dismantling long chains of hydrocarbons (and therefore some types of oil)
posted by oneirodynia at 7:54 PM on November 30, 2007


This is so awesome. If only I hadn't cleaned the shower drain yesterday.
posted by gomichild at 9:01 PM on November 30, 2007


Fungi breaking down plastics? Maybe we have a solution to this, then.
posted by Termite at 11:39 PM on November 30, 2007


One benefit to synthetics is smaller transport size. HUman hair mats may be too bulky and heavy for routine small-ship carry.

rtha - microbes are very good at sensing gradients, so the food source was probably leaking something the mycobacterium could sense that could diffuse through the maze. The bacteria just homed in on it like a dog on a scent. I'm not too worried about superintelligent bacterial overlords (I am worried about antibiotic resistant microbial overlords, though).

small_ruminant - ... and making "soy" sauce.
posted by porpoise at 12:41 AM on December 1, 2007


Fungi break down material by excreting enzymes and other chemicals. That process probably doesn't adapt so well to an aqueous environment.
posted by ryanrs at 7:42 AM on December 1, 2007


Fungi do play a small role in breaking down petroleum, but the huge majority of oil is broken down by vegetative bacteria. There are thousands probably millions of species which do it. They've been found in every ocean ecosystem which has ever been looked at.

The main limitations on oil biodegredation are access to oil (ie is it droplets or is it in bulk), access to oxygen, and temperature. Seeding organisms into the environment is entirely unnecessary. Fertilizing, at least in the initial phases, is almost entirely unnecessary. Enhancing mixing, with lots of air and oxygen, and higher temperatures are all the things that have been found to promote petroleum biodegradation.
posted by bonehead at 8:28 AM on December 1, 2007


Remember: fungi have much slower life cycles than bacteria do. Mycelia take weeks to months to mature; bacterial life cycles are measured in hours to days.
posted by bonehead at 8:31 AM on December 1, 2007


Hair is a decent adsober but doesn't retain oil well (thanks, thehmsbeagle, for making the distinction). Compared to sorbets made out of polypropylene and other plastics:
- it just doesn't work as well as the synthetics (ie pick up as much or more weight of oil per weight of sorbent)
- it's heavy, especially when wet---synthetics are designed to repel water and only trap oil
- in short supply---sorbent companies can crank out trailerfuls of sorbent material in a day or two when necessary, and there are hundreds of companies which can do so.
- expensive. Hair has to be collected from many small sources and cleaned before use---it's hard to beat polypropylene pads in this respect
- is difficult to form into something other than "socks" (long tubes)---sorbents are very commonly needed in a format like a big paper towel (12" square pad is the most common), or as a loose powder.
- doesn't store well unless dry---synthetics will keep forever

All of these factors "conspire" to limit the use of hair as a spill sorbent. The biggies are effectiveness, availability and cost---and hair is worse than engineered synthetics on all three. It's not used because people don't know about it; hair isn't used because it is much less practical than the alternatives.
posted by bonehead at 8:55 AM on December 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but what happens to those synthetics afterward? Hair breaks down, but plastic never does. Seems to me it's just creating a different problem down the road.
posted by bink at 12:10 PM on December 1, 2007


Paul Stamets is the Man. Thanks for posting this.
posted by alexwoods at 2:30 PM on December 1, 2007


What a totally inspiring and uplifting post. Thanks serazin. Awesome to hear about an environmental crisis grassroots collaboration going on with global enthusiasm. Benefits all around in terms of people getting educated about what they can do, hope in that one person can make a difference.

Lisa Gautier, who organized this, is amazing. Brava!
posted by nickyskye at 7:08 PM on December 2, 2007


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