The competition, which is also sponsored by Lego, Virgin Galactic, National Geographic and Scientific American saw Fionn Ferreira, an 18-year-old from West Cork, Ireland win the competition for his unique methodology to removing microplastics from water.
At 18 Ferreira has a very impressive array of accomplishments. He is the curator at the Schull Planetarium, he speaks 3 languages fluently, he’s won 12 previous science fair competitions and he plays the trumpet in an orchestra.
Oh, and he also has a minor planet named after him by MIT!
Microplastics, which are defined as plastics of having a diameter of 5nm or less, are too small for filtering or screening during wastewater treatment.
Microplastics are often included in soaps, shower gels, and facial scrubs because of their ability to exfoliate the skin.
There are natural alternatives to microplastics in facial scrubs, however, such as St Ives Apricot Scrub which is made up of 100% natural exfoliants.
The Apricot stone itself is often ground up into tiny parts (and this is biodegradable unlike its plastic counterparts).
Microplastics can also come off clothing during normal washing. These microplastics then make their way into the waterways and are virtually impossible to remove through regular filtration.
Small fish are known to eat microplastics, and as larger fish eat these smaller fish, these microplastics are concentrated into larger fish species that humans then consume.
Ferreira’s technique uses a combination of oil and magnetite powder to create a ‘ferrofluid’ in the water containing microplastics.
The microplastics combine with the ferrofluid which is then extracted.
After the microplastics are bound to the ferrofluid, Ferreira uses a magnet to remove the solution and leave behind only water.
After 1,000 tests of Ferreira’s method, it was found to be 87% effective in removing microplastics from all sorts from water solution.
The most effective microplastic removed was that from a washing machine with the hardest to remove being polypropylene plastics.
With the confirmation of the methodology, Ferreira hopes to scale the technology to be able to implement at wastewater treatment facilities all around the world!
This would prevent the microplastics from ever reaching waterways (and the ocean).
Whilst a reduction in the use of microplastics is the ideal scenario, this methodology also presents a new opportunity to screen for microplastics before they are consumed as food by fish.