Dr. Richard W. Smith (PhD), ideaXme World Oceans Ambassador and Chemical Oceanographer at Global Aquatic Research, interviews 18-year-old scientist Fionn Ferreira, winner of the 2019 Google Science Fair.
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Fionn Ferreira recently received the award for developing a method for removing plastics from water. Whilst, this represents a breakthrough in the scientific community for the removal pollutants from water, many are surprised that the innovator behind this achievement has only recently finished high school.
“Microplastics are just tiny plastic particles, which may have been made tiny, like microplastics in microbeads and soaps. They could also be made when you wash your clothes, for instance little plastic fibres come off the clothes. Or, it could be larger plastics that have broken down through UV or mechanical erosion. When these plastics enter our water or the air, these tiny plastic particles are really small, and they can cause lots of problems if other organisms ingest them. They can travel through the food chain until they eventually reach us humans,” Fionn explains.
“We don’t really know the extent of problems caused by microplastics, but they have definitely been linked to cancer and lots of nasty things.”
Fionn’s method involves creating ferrofluids, a magnetic liquid created from light oils such as vegetable oil and magnetised powder. Both ferrofluids and plastics are nonpolar, and because of this, they stick to one another in water.
Not only is this an innovative solution to the serious plastic problem in our waterways, but it is also sustainable and affordable. Magnetised powder is a byproduct of many industries, such as mining, and the vegetable oil used can be recycled from large fast food chains, and even recycled further from the microplastic filtration process itself.
Even if without using recycled magnetised powder and vegetable oil, the maximum estimated cost of this method would be $1.60 per every 1000 liters of water filtered.
Fionn tested the method near his home, in an area with oil spill residue which had attracted plastic waste. He tested his method on the 10 most common microplastics in our oceans and found that he was able to filter microplastics ranging from six millimeters to mere nanometers in size.
Since publishing his findings and winning the Google Science Fair, Fionn has been approached by a number of different companies to develop this further. He has not patented his method, leaving it in the public domain.
” I think that it’s great that companies can use it and can implement it, because I want it to be implemented. I don’t want to make loads of money from it. I want it just to be a use and something that people can actually use.”
Possible applications include use in wastewater streams and water treatment plants, as well applying this method to water intake systems in large shipping vessels. This would further increase the sustainability of Fionn’s method, as no additional vessels would be needed and the microplastic filtration could occur as a positive byproduct as these ships transport goods.
“I think the idea of communicating science to the general public is something that motivates me.”
Tune in to hear Fionn’s incredible story, what his future holds, and how he came to have a minor planet named in his honor.
Photograph credit: Fionn Ferreira
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