IRISH TEEN'S MICROPLASTICS SOLUTION WINS GOOGLE SCIENCE FAIR PRIZE
By Suzanne Forcese
He speaks three languages fluently. He has played trumpet in several orchestras. He is the curator and head lecturer at the Schull Planetarium in West Cork, Ireland. He loves gardening, wacky experiments and cool science. His motivation is saving the oceans and wildlife. He is designing websites, is involved in entrepreneurial activities, and he has a planet named after him. Fionn Ferreira is only 18 but he may just have created a method to clean up the world’s oceans.
Fionn Ferreira of Ballydehob in West Cork, Ireland with Vint Cerf, Vice-President of Google, and the Google Science Fair trophy. Image:Google
“I live in a very remote part of Ireland,” Ferreira told Water Today in a truly inspiring interview, “I love being immersed in nature by either walking or kayaking. Because of this I have become passionate about the well-being of our lovely environment. This has made me interested in plastic waste and made me strive for a solution to the big plastic problem.”
Ferreira was one of the 100 contestants, aged 13-18, in the Google Science Fair Competition that challenges teens to solve real-world problems through the application of science, technology, engineering and math. Ferreira’s project, “An Investigation Into The Removal Of Microplastics From Water Using Ferrofluids”, landed him the Grand Prize of $50,000 USD at a ceremony held at Google International Headquarters in Mountainview, California.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic measuring 5 mm or less and are the result of environmental forces breaking down larger pieces of plastic waste. Another complexity of the microplastic problem is these miniscule pieces of plastic have entered our wastewater treatment centres – mostly from washing machines which have released the microfibers (one type of microplastic) from laundered synthetics. Unfortunately, at present, wastewater treatment plants do not have a method to remove them. The microfibers then contaminate our waterways and are carried out to the oceans where fish and aquatic life mistake them for food.
Researchers have found microplastics in the farthest reaches of the oceans from the Mariana Trench to the Arctic and Antarctic. The entire marine ecosystem is contaminated. Microplastics have also been measured in our food and drinking water. A recently released study (June 2019) out of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, led by Kieran Cox reports, “people ingest 50,000 microplastic particles a year.” The concern is that microplastics are made of toxic chemicals.
Ferreira’s experiment focuses on finding an environmentally responsible way to extract harmful microplastics from water. “I found a rock on our seashore which had oil spill residue on it. It also had plastics stuck to it. This got me thinking about polar and non-polar things which stick together. Plastic and ferrofluid are both non-polar so they attract each other. This was the major aha moment,” Ferreira told WT.
Research began with an investigation into what types of microplastic extraction and elimination methods were already in existence. Although he found that scientists were looking for a method, nothing so far has been created. “The research told me there had to be a viable method.” He decided to give his idea of ferrofluid a try.
“A ferrofluid is a magnetic liquid which is an oil (in my case vegetable oil) with iron particles suspended in it (in my case magnetite powder which is a powdered rust). This liquid is magnetic and attracted by magnets.”
Ferreira’s inspiration came from the Nasa engineer Steve Papell who created the first ferrofluid in 1963. Also wanting not to harm the environment, he adds, “My method was inspired by an article written by Arden Warner using non-toxic iron oxide (magnetite to clean up oil spills). I used this method in the extraction of
micro-plastics by adding oil to a suspension containing a known concentration of microplastics, these then migrated to the oil phase. Magnetite powder was added.” This created the ferrofluid. The reason Ferreira liked the use of magnetite was that it does not harm marine life and it is 98% extractable with magnets.
“Essentially I added ferrofluid to contaminated water. It attracted plastic particles and then both the ferrofluid and the plastic could be removed by bringing a magnet close to the mixture.”
“I tested the 10 most commonly found microplastics in the environment; PET, LDPE, PS, PV, Nylon, Polyester, Acrylic. My results in over a thousand tests was an average of 87% extraction.”
Because he lives in a very remote part of Ireland, with no access to a lab, Ferreira built his own spectrometer and he had to produce his microplastics. Hard plastics were sanded using non-shedding sandpaper and sieved to less than 5 mm. Epoxy microplastics from cosmetics were separated from the gels using suction filtration and desiccation. Plastic fibres were used from model- making grass and by removing microfibers from washing machine filters.
“This award has made me very excited because now there is an outlook for my project to be implemented on a wider scale. I think this can work in wastewater treatment plants. Because of this I have designed a continuous flow system for wastewater treatment.”
So what’s next for the young Irishman? “I want to study chemistry in the University of Groningen, Netherlands. I will start in September. I don’t know yet what I will do afterwards. I do want to be heard with my problem solving and
want to solve many more to see a world with healthy strong wildlife.”
WaterToday is confident Fionn Ferreira is being heard. He is already immortalized in the heavens.
If you happen to look up to the night sky and spot Minor Planet (34497), it has been named Fionnferreira by the Society For Science & the Public and Intel Foundation, in recognition of achievement as a top award winner in the 2018 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
YouTube VIDEO: An investigation into the removal of microplastics from water using ferro fluids
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