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Capstone Students Bring Fresh Set of Eyes to a Salty Problem

Posted by Engineering Communications on May 17, 2023 in News
From left to right: Alanna Brathwaite, Meredith Tulloch, Hailey Taylor, Anthony Douchant
From left to right: Alanna Brathwaite, Meredith Tulloch, Hailey Taylor, Anthony Douchant

In 2010, Mike Petrosoniak and a friend spent four months teaching sailing in the Bahamas. They were out on the water—a lot. And they loved what it did to their hair. “We really didn’t need to use anything in our hair because of the salt in it. I could just run my hand through it and it would stay in position,” Petrosoniak recalls.

A chemical engineer with a Master’s in Resource and Environmental Management from Dalhousie, Petrosoniak thought it would be great to get that effect in a bottle. And so, in 2018, he founded Salty Hair. The company bills its signature product as a “surf-inspired naturally-sourced sea salt spray.” In developing the product, Petrosoniak started as simply as possible: with ocean water in a bottle. But that left a bit to be desired. “It really didn’t do anything,” he says. So he started creating a more concentrated solution, then perfected the recipe by adding all-natural ingredients including aloe and flax.

But while Petrosoniak has refined the recipe over the years, the process for making Salty Hair—boiling seawater and multiple stages of filtering—has remained largely unchanged. And that’s where Dalhousie Engineering students and the Capstone Program come in. Capstone projects connect teams of engineering students with companies facing an open-ended problem they don’t have the resources to tackle on their own.

In Salty Hair’s case, that means optimizing the production process so it uses less energy and allows Petrosoniak to scale up from the current 100 or so bottles per batch. “It takes many hours,” he says, “and I realized if I’m going to try to move this to a bigger scale, then I definitely need to optimize the production process. I’d also like to add some other products down the line, and if I spend all my time trying to make batches of Salty I’m not going to get anywhere.”

Hailey Taylor is a senior chemical engineering student, and part of a team working with Salty Hair for their Capstone project. Each team member works on a different aspect of the process. Taylor’s challenge was concentration control—finding a way to concentrate the salt water without spending hours and hours burning fossil fuels to boil it off.

“There are other options out there that separate the fresh water, let’s call it, from the salt water. It leaves the salt behind and creates that concentrated product by relying on pressure instead of temperature,” Taylor says. “We can’t just get something straight off the market. We have to customize it ourselves, so it will work and be appropriate for concentrating the salt water.” Other members of the team are working on different aspects of production, like exploring ultraviolet (UV) light and ultrafiltration as an alternative to some of the filtering stages.

Taylor says she enjoys the technical challenges of the project, but also the real-life experience it provides—not only from an engineering perspective, but in terms of client management as well. She says, “This is the first time we get to handle a client on our own. Of course we have lots of support from our profs and TAs, but it’s mainly our responsibility to make sure we are communicating regularly and that we are on the right track for the client’s idea.”

For Petrosoniak, the process of working with the students has been “really great.” He says it’s been interesting watching them come together and develop as a team, and seeing their proposed solutions.

“They bring in new ideas, which is great,” he says. “Obviously, me looking at the same process over and over again, I’m only going to come up with so many ways to do something. So it’s great to have a fresh set of eyes—and young and eager eyes as well—to solve problems.”