A teenager from Ireland was awarded a $50,000 prize from Google after he demonstrated a method of removing microplastics from water.
Google’s own Google Science Fair was launched in 2011, and gives students aged 13 to 18 the opportunity to submit their own experiments and results to a panel of judges, with the winner taking home $50,000.
18-year-old Fionn Ferreira, from West Cork in Ireland, won this year’s competition with his innovative method to remove microplastics from water.
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, less than 5 nanometres (one nanometre is one billionth of a metre) in size, which are too small to filter out or screen for during treatment of water. Microplastics and beads were popular in certain shampoos and shower gels due to their ability to exfoliate the skin, though products with microplastics in them have now been banned in the UK.
However, microplastics still occur in bodies of water when plastic waste slowly breaks down. They are almost impossible to remove by filtering the water, and therefore are consumed by marine life, which in turn can be consumed by humans.
Ferreira’s experiment devised a way of combining oil and magnetite powder to create a ferrofluid in the water. Ferrofluid is a thick liquid which becomes magnetised in the presence of a magnetic field. The microplastics become trapped in the ferrofluid, which is then removed with a magnet, leaving the water clear.
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Fionn conducted 1,000 tests to perfect his method, and found it was 87 per cent effective in removing microplastics from various water sources, Forbes reports. The method was most effective in removing fibres obtained from washing machines, and least effective on polypropylene plastics.
However, with the success of the method, the 18-year-old is hoping to scale up his design and eventually implement it at wastewater treatment facilities. As such, Fionn’s design would prevent most microplastics from reaching waterways and oceans. It would also mean facilities could screen for microplastics in water before they are mistakenly consumed by fish.
Aged 18, Fionn is already a prodigious scientist – he is the curator of Schull Planetarium, a science centre in West Cork, he has won 12 other science fair competitions before the Google Science Fair, and even had a minor planet named after him by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Google Science Fair is also sponsored by Lego, Virgin Galactic, National Geographic and Scientific American.
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Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.