Human Hair – the Next Fertiliser?
Ms Ntwanano Moirah Malepfane graduated cum laude with a masters in Soil Science degree from UKZN after conducting a study on the elemental composition and fertiliser value of different human hair types in South Africa.
Malepfane decided on the topic because of the need for alternatives to expensive commercial fertilisers and says human hair could act as a potential alternative source of nutrients, and its use could be an effective waste management strategy.
Supervised by Professor Pardon Muchaonyerwa, Malepfane used samples of hair from African, Indian and White people. Malepfane analysed the hair types for the presence of micronutrients, heavy metals, and various macronutrients, including nitrogen, sulphur, phosphorus and potassium.
She also carried out an incubation experiment to determine the release patterns of various elements.
A pot study was conducted, evaluating the effect of pre-incubation time and hair type on crop yield and nutrient uptake. This revealed that, with a minimum pre-incubation time of 28 days, human hair could swiftly release enough nitrogen for growing spinach.
Effects of hair type were more evident at shorter pre-incubation times - hair from Africans resulted in greater dry-matter and nitrogen and sulphur uptake than hair from Whites.
Results indicated that hair from Indians and Whites exhibited higher nitrogen levels than hair from Africans, with hair from Indians releasing more nitrogen in the incubation study.
‘This research was inspired by a growing interest in recycling waste keratin materials high in nitrogen and sulphur,’ explained Malepfane.
Despite the advantages of this research, funding for the project was not forthcoming. Malepfane also had to combat superstitions about her subject matter, with some people believing that giving away their hair could result in it being used in black magic.
Malepfane, who enjoyed exploring and understanding suitability and management of soils in her studies, plans to continue with a PhD.
She expressed gratitude to God and her family for the encouragement and support she received during her studies.