After stumbling upon a stone with oil and plastic stuck to it, 18-year-old Fionn Ferreira, of Ireland, was inspired to search for a solution that would help remove microplastics from the ocean.
Microplastics—particles of plastic smaller than 5mm in length—are nearly impossible to remove through filtration. They are introduced to the food chain as small fish and crustaceans consume them. Then, as larger fish consume smaller fish, those microplastics eventually end up on our dinner plates. Some research suggests that we eat a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week!
Most microplastics are created as a result of macroplastics, like bottles, straws and even plastic furniture, being broken up by waves and UV irradiation. But microplastics can also be manufactured. You’ll find them in the form of microbeads in soaps, shower gels and face wash since they can exfoliate skin. They can also shed from materials like nylon and polyester and enter waterways as microplastic fibers when they’re washed.
“Once plastics enter our oceans, they are practically impossible to extract,” Ferreira said. “It is therefore essential that we find efficient and effective ways of extracting microplastics from wastewaters before they reach our watercourses and ultimately our oceans.”
And Ferreira may have found that efficient and effective solution. He devised a system that removes microplastics from water by combining oil and magnetite powder to create a ferrofluid, a liquid that becomes strongly magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field. The ferrofluid attracts the microplastics in the water. Then, after the two combine, the microplastics can be extracted with a magnet, leaving the water clear and free of microplastics. Ferriera’s solution earned him first place in the 2019 Google Science Fair and $50,000 in educational funding.
Ferreira wrote that he hopes to continue his research, scale his project to an industrial level, and implement the technology at water treatment centers.