Microplastics Removal Idea Wins Young Scientist $50,000

Irish teenager Fionn Ferreira has devised a simple but effective method to extract microplastics from the world’s oceans. According to his paper on the process, his extraction method removed 85 percent to 92 percent of microplastics in water samples. His ground-breaking experiments earned him a substantial cash award from Google.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says plastic is the most common type of marine debris found in our oceans and Great Lakes. Microplastics, or particles of plastic less than 5 millimeters in diameter, have been found in the furthest reaches of the ocean. They are nearly impossible to remove from large bodies of water and their small size allows them to pass through water filtration systems.

Ferreira says that his procedure was inspired by an article written by physicist Arden Warner. He used a magnetic liquid called ferrofluid, currently used to clean up oil spills, to attract the microplastics in his water samples because both have similar properties. After the microplastics latched on to the ferrofluids, Ferreira used a strong magnet to remove both substances, leaving clear water. Ten of the most common microplastics were used for his nearly one-thousand tests.

Ferreira submitted his idea to the Google Science Fair, an online competition open to students between the ages of 13 and 18, for consideration. Shortly after submitting his final paper, he was invited to Google international headquarters in Mountain View, California, to present his project to an international judging panel. The experience allowed him to meet several scientists and engineers associated with Google. Ferreira ultimately won the science fair’s grand prize, a $50,000 scholarship fund, for his project.

Ferreira says his procedure could be used to potentially purify water before it reaches the oceans. He hopes that his idea could be implemented at wastewater treatment facilities one day. The next step would be to scale the project up to an industrial level.