Did You Know That Human Hair Can Be Used To Treat Water Pollution? He Found Out When He Was 13!

Did you know waste like human hair, sawdust and bird feathers can clean oil spills from water? Nikhilesh Das came up with this idea when he was just 13. Read more to know how three incidents in his life made him come up with three solutions to eliminate water pollution. 

Nikhilesh Das was just a 13-year-old, 7th grader, living in Assam when he figured out a way of addressing water pollution caused by oil spills in rivers and oceans.

“Though I was just a kid, I knew about the accidental oil leakages in Brahmaputra River which spoiled the harvest of the farmers, resulting in farmer suicides in some parts of Assam,” Nikhilesh remembers.

The early start, a curious mind and an opportunity to research made Das come up with some of the simplest innovations that can prevent water pollution due to oil spillage.

Nikhilesh Das
Nikhilesh Das

An exhibition on pollution got him thinking and doing some research on the internet to see how this huge issue could be tackled. But he was not satisfied with the results.

“Many existing techniques that people use only create more pollution in the water. I wasn’t convinced that these can be used as sustainable methods to eliminate water pollution and separate oil from water,” he says.

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.

Hair oil theory and his mother’s invaluable advice

Human hair removed over 90 percent of the oil influence from water in its first experiment.
Nikhilesh used human hair to remove over 90 percent of the oil influence from water in his first experiment.

“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 so 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.

“I started this experiment without thinking of the results, but to my surprise it worked perfectly. And this is how I was ready with the first ingredient to clean polluted water,” Nikhilesh says.

A documentary film on Discovery channel

Birth feathers are yet another ingredient that can be used to clear oil influence from water.
Bird feathers are yet another ingredient that can be used to clear oil influence from water.

Watching a documentary film on migratory birds that died due to oil spillage was the second incident that struck a chord with Nikhilesh. He soon came up with the second ingredient to separate oil from water.

“I was really moved when I saw the documentary. I started researching what caused them to die,” he says. After reading several articles, he found out that the migratory birds would touch the surface of the water to catch fish and the oil would stick to their feathers. This would make them unable to fly, leading to a painful death.

“One line from an article stood out for me: ‘Oil got stuck to their feathers.’ I thought, feathers can also catch oil and can be used,” he says.

Nikhilesh again put on his experimenting hat, got a beaker and some bird feathers from the butcher’s shop and repeated the same experiment. It met with success. “So I had found my second ingredient. And this was also waste as fallen bird feathers are not of much use,” he says.

A carpenter helped provide the third ingredient

Sawdust served as the third ingredient
Photo source: www.smokai.com

One day, when Nikhilesh’s house was going through a renovation, the carpenter spilled some oil on the ground by mistake. He quickly used some sawdust to absorb the oil, which vanished in seconds. This gave Nikhilesh yet another ingredient using sawdust to separate oil from water.

“I repeated the steps and was successful again. So here I was, with three simple waste ingredients that could help address water pollution,” he says.

Giving shape to his idea

Nikhilesh prepared a prototype using these waste ingredients and won himself many school and national awards. He was also shortlisted by the National Innovation Foundation, which got him an award from the President in 2009. His simple yet unique innovation also won him an INK fellowship in 2011.

As Nikhilesh was still in school and under academic pressure, he could not take his prototype forward. But he is now looking for potential supporters to help him take his innovation to the market.

Nikhilesh Das won an award from former president Pratibha Patil for his innovation in 2009.
Nikhilesh Das won an award from former president Pratibha Patil for his innovation in 2009.

The future

“I would like to design a big hairbrush kind of machine, which could be used to clean water bodies. I am not an engineer and I don’t even have the resources or technologies to design a big machine though. I will be glad if someone could help me take the design to the next level,” he says.

Nikhilesh thinks there is potential in the idea of retrieving waste oil for use in other purposes. “Right now, even if the oil is cleaned, it is of no use and gets totally wasted. I want to work on how it can be further utilized,” he says.

“I would want school authorities and teachers to be more supportive of students who want to innovate. More focus should be given on practical knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge and scoring good marks,” concludes Nikhilesh.

Currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in physics from Guwahati, Nikhilesh wants to do more research on how to address issues related to air pollution. We cannot wait for him to come up with more amazing innovations!

Here is the INK talk by Nikhilesh Das, where he shows how his innovation to clean oil-polluted water works-

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