While some teens may be busy playing video games and texting their friends, one teen from Ireland is trying to free the ocean from unwanted plastic. Eighteen-year-old Fionn Ferreira recently won $50,000 in the Google Science Fair in Mountain View, California for his invention to remove microplastics from the water.
“I love being immersed in nature…because of this, I have become passionate about the wellbeing of our lovely environment,” Ferreira tells Parentology. “This has made me interested in plastic waste and this is what made me strive for a solution to the big plastic problem.”
If you’re not sure what microplastics are, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines them as small plastic pieces that can harm the ocean and aquatic life. CNN recently reported that, depending on our age and sex, we eat, drink, and breathe as many as 121,000 microplastic particles every year.
Microplastics are not only found in the ocean but have also been known to contaminate food during production and packaging. They are also typically found in soaps, shower gels, and facial scrubs because they can help exfoliate the skin.
Since microplastics are so small, they can get past water filtration systems and into oceans to pollute water and harm marine life.
Ferreira says while he was taking a walk on the beach in Ireland he saw a stone with oil and plastic stuck to it. This led him to think about how much plastic waste there is and about polar and nonpolar things that stick together.
Ferreira tells Parentology his Google Science Fair project offers a new method to remove microplastics from water by using a magnetic liquid called ferrofluid. The fluid is a magnetic — an oil with iron particles suspended in it. Ferriera uses vegetable oil and a magnetite powder, otherwise known as powderized rust. He says both materials aren’t harmful to marine life.
“This liquid attracts microplastics when they are in water and sticks to them,” Ferreira says. Since the liquid is magnetic, it can then be removed using magnets.
Ferreira says he added ferrofluid to contaminated water, which attracted the plastic particles. He found both the ferrofluid and plastic could be removed by bringing the magnet close to the mixture. After testing 10 of the most commonly found microplastics in the environment, Ferreira was able to extract 87% of them over thousands of tests.
The Google Science Fair is just the beginning for Ferreira. He says his project can also help the sustainability of wastewater on a wider scale.
“I also have a method which I think could work on ships… we must, however, tackle the problem at the source first,” Ferreira says.
For now, he’s heading to the University of Groningen in the Netherlands this fall to study chemistry.
His advice to young students around the world? “Look at your daily life. Look at what you can easily improve and how you can make a small difference.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally ran in August 2019.