An imaginative and enterprising young man may have just cracked the code for battling one of the world’s most pervasive and difficult-to-treat water contaminants, as 18-year-old Fionn Ferreira took home the top prize at the Google Science Fair for his technique of removing microplastics.
“Since most microplastics measure less than 5 millimeters in diameter, it is impossible to prevent the small pollutants from ending up in oceans, lakes, and urban waterways using typical filtration methods,” the Good News Network reported. “However, Fionn was able to use his ferrofluid method to collect 87% of microplastics from his water samples in 1,000 different tests.”
Microplastics are pervasive in drinking water, source water, and wastewater, raising questions about the potential harm they’re doing to the environment and to consumers. But treatment operations struggle to combat them because of their small size. While there are other innovative solutions for microplastics in the works, Ferreira’s idea has proven remarkably promising.
“In the presence of water, ferrofluids — nontoxic magnetic liquids made up of oil and magnetite, an iron-based rock mineral — attract the microplastics because both have similar properties,” according to CNN. “For his project, Ferreira added oil and magnetite to water and mixed in a solution emulating plastic waste in the ocean. When the microplastics latched onto the ferrofluids, Ferreira dipped a magnet into the solution three times to remove both substances, leaving clear water.”
If Ferreira’s method proves to be scalable, it may be a critical tool for wastewater treatment operations around the world.
“At present, no screening or filtering for microplastics takes place in any European wastewater treatment centres,” per The Journal. “Ferreira stated that his proposal could ‘form the basis for an effective way of extracting microplastics from water,’ adding: ‘The next step is to scale this up to an industrial scale.”
Perhaps Ferreira will soon be adding industrial-scale treatment engineer to his resumé, which already includes 12 science fair awards, fluency in three languages, orchestra-level trumpet proficiency and, now, the $50,000 Google Science Fair Grand Prize.