Published on 23 Sep 2022

A Hairy Solution to Urban Farming: Growing Salad Out of Human Hair - Prof Ng Kee Woei & Prof Hu Xiao

We are pleased to share that Prof Ng Kee Woei, Prof Hu Xiao and the team have been featured in various media for their research on using the keratin extracted from discarded hair to develop a sustainable substitute for growth mediums used in urban farming.

Using keratin extracted from human hair collected from hair salons, Prof Ng and Prof Hu, along with seven other researchers from NTU and Harvard University, found that they could mix cellulose fibres into the keratin solution to strengthen it.
The mixture is then dried into a spongy substrate – also known as hydroponics substrate – that can be used to grow common local vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, kale, and arugula with good results.

The new hydroponics substrate has an advantage over traditional substrates made from Rockwool, polyurethane and phenolic foams in that it is biodegradable and can become a source of nutrients for plants when they degrade.
The findings of this proof-of-concept study were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, titled “Sustainable Nutrient Substrates for Enhanced Seedling Development in Hydroponics” (DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.2c01668).

The study originates in the NTU-Harvard Initiative for Sustainable Nanotechnology, a collaboration with Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health in the United States.
This NTU innovation is further developed with funding from the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) under the National Research Foundation (NRF).
The team is also currently in talks with other organisations, including local urban farms, to perform large-scale field tests, one of which aims to tweak the composition of the substrate to accommodate different vegetables, such as those with thicker roots.
For the full media release, please visit NTU News: A hairy solution to urban farming: growing salad out of human hair.

“Besides hair, livestock farming produces large amounts of keratin as biowastes, as it is found abundantly in wool, horns, hooves, and feathers. Since keratin can be extracted from many types of farm wastes, developing keratin-based hydroponic substrates could be an important strategy for recycling farm wastes as part of sustainable agriculture.”
                                                                                       - Prof Ng Kee Woei -
A Hairy Solution V1 - Prof Ng Kee Woei & Prof Hu XiaoA Hairy Solution V2 - Prof Ng Kee Woei & Prof Hu Xiao
From left: Dr Pan Xiaoyong, Prof Hu Xiao, Prof Ng Kee Woei and Dr Zhao Zhitong holding up various raw materials such as human hair and keratin solution and their keratin-based hydroponics substrate. (Source: NTU)

Hydroponics substrates made of keratin and cellulose fibres could be a growth medium used in urban farming. (Source: NTU)


Our heartiest congratulations to Prof Ng, Prof Hu and their team on this excellent achievement!

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