Teen Wins $50 Million For Making Filters That Remove Microplastics From Water

An Irish teenager recently won a major international science competition because of the method he developed that effectively removed microplastics from water.

Fionn Ferreira, an 18-year-old from West Cork, Ireland has been named the overall winner of the 2019 Google Science Fair.

Google launched the Google Science Fair in 2011, where students can submit experiments and their results in front of a panel of judges. The annual science competition is open to students aged 13-18 years old and culminates in an award ceremony at the Google international headquarters in Mountain View, California.

This year’s competition was sponsored by Lego, Virgin Galactic, National Geographic, and Scientific American.

As the winner, Ferreira took home the top prize of $50,000, beating 23 other finalists who were chosen from a shortlist of 100 regional entries all competing for the top title.

Ferreira’s winning project involved an innovative way of extracting the extremely small plastic waste in water, that is an emerging pollutant in global oceans.

Despite Ferreira bagging the grand prize, Vint Cerf, vice-president at Google, said each entry “was an impressive, original contribution that has real-world implications for some of the world’s toughest problems.”

“Behind every ambitious student are parents and teachers who cheer them on, and push them to keep learning. And to the students, you rock. We can’t wait to see what you do next, ” Cerf said.

Mainly, microplastics are plastic particles less than 5mm commonly used in soaps, shower gels, and facial scrubs to help exfoliate the skin; they are also found in some toothpaste and abrasive cleaners. Often these plastic wastes cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Due to its size, it is almost impossible to remove them in water filtration systems and eventually finds its way up in waterways and finally the ocean.

Sealife and wildlife will mistake these fragments for food and will consume these small plastic beads.

Consequently, microplastic becomes part of the food chain—human will eventually be part of—that poses a health threat.

Recently, a study found that green mussels from the Philippines were discovered to be 100 percent positive with microplastic. Aquatic animals such as mussels are natural water filters and will consume anything floating near its feeding site.

Meanwhile, another study conducted last October 2018, researchers gathered data on microplastics in mussels from coastal waters and supermarkets in the United Kingdom, discovered that all of which contained microplastics.

Moreover, supermarket-bought mussels for human consumption also all contain microplastics where 43% or 57% of debris items from coastal/supermarket mussels were microplastics. The researchers predicted consumers ingested 70 microplastic items in 100 g processed mussels.

In this sense, it is predicted that the same goes for other aquatic food that eventually ends up on our plates.

But other than humans indirectly consuming microplastic, it also affects wildlife. Particularly for mussels, it affects a function that allows it to stick to rocks, that prevents them from being washed away by currents and feed.

Ferreira’s project wants to see an end or at least a way to mitigate all of these from happening in the future.

In his procedure, a solution of oil and magnetite powder called ferrofluids were used to extracting microplastic from water. Specifically, microplastics bound to the ferrofluid, and a magnet was used to remove the solution. Leaving only water in the process, a method that saw an impressive success rate.

In 1,000 tests carried out on water samples, Ferreira was able to remove 87% of microplastics with the system most effective on ”fibers obtained from a washing machine and least effective on polypropylene plastics.”

In the future, Ferreira hopes to bring his technology to the industrial scale. Particularly, to incorporate it with existing water filtration systems to improve how microplastics can be prevented from ever reaching the ocean and other waterways.

“I look forward to applying my findings and contributing towards a solution in tackling microplastics in our oceans worldwide,” he said.

There is currently no legislation in Europe to monitor and filter microplastics, but the Irish government is working extensively to introduce a ban on the sale, manufacture, import, and export of products containing microplastics.

Ferreira, only 18 have seen an impressive set of achievements including 12 science awards and a minor planet named after him by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in recognition of his performance at the 2018 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. He is also the curator at the Schull Planetarium, speaks three languages, and even plays the trumpet in an orchestra.

In the meantime, he will be attending university in the Netherlands.

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