The climate crisis is very important for young people. We see teenagers like Greta Thunberg inspiring children around the world to engage in political activism. Then there are solution seekers like Fionn Ferreira, an 18-year-old Irish wunderkind, who won the grand prize at the 2019 Google Science Fair for creating a method to remove microplastics from the ocean.
Ferreira's project used a novel but effective methodology to eliminate ocean plastics. He used magnets to attract microplastics from the water. The project found that a magnetic liquid called ferrofluid attracted the tiny plastic particles and removed them from the water. After nearly a thousand tests, his device successfully removed about 88 percent of microplastics from water samples, according to The Irish Times.
"I look forward to applying my findings and contributing to a solution to address microplastics in our oceans around the world," he said.
The Google Science Fair invited 24 young scientists from around the world to its Mountain View, California campus to showcase their projects. The guests were chosen from a short list of 100 global entries. Ferreira's grand prize is $ 50,000 in educational funds.
His idea came to him after finding an oil-covered rock near his remote coastal town in southwestern Ireland. He noticed small pieces of plastic stuck to the oil. The small size of microplastics has confused scientists looking for ways to remove them from the environment. But Ferreira thought of something.
"It got me thinking," Ferreira said, as Business Insider reported. "In chemistry, the similar attracts the similar."
Those microplastics, which are less than 5mm long, come from beauty products, various textiles, and larger pieces of plastic that break down. Because they are so small, they escape from water filtration systems and end up polluting waterways. Once in rivers and oceans, marine animals of all sizes end up ingesting them.
They are ending up in humans too. A recent study found that each week, humans eat, on average, more than 50,000 pieces of microplastics each year. That number skyrockets for people who primarily drink bottled water.
"I was alarmed to discover how many microplastics enter our sewage system and consequently the oceans," he wrote in his project, as reported by CNN.
As plastic and oil come together, Ferreira wondered if the same would happen if he used ferrofluid, which helps control vibration in speakers and isolates electronic devices from debris.
Both microplastics and ferrofluids have similar properties, which is why they attract each other. For his experiments, shown in the video below, Ferreira added ferrofluids to the water and then stirred it into a solution packed with microplastics. When the microplastics found the ferrofluids, they stuck together. Ferreira then dipped a magnet into the solution, which attracted the ferrofluids and microplastics combined. It left clear water, as CNN reported.
Ferreira is proud of what he created and the award he received before heading to the University of Groningen in the Netherlands for university. However, he cautioned that just removing plastics from the water is not the answer.
"I'm not saying that my project is the solution," he said. "The solution is that we stop using plastic completely."
Jordan Davidson, article in English