Fionn Ferreira devised a method to remove microplastics, or small bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters long that accumulate in wastewater before filtering into larger bodies of water likes rivers and oceans, by using a liquid invented by NASA, called ferro-fluids. This idea was introduced at the Google Science Fair, and managed to impress enough to win the competition, along with its $50,000 prize. Read more for two videos and additional information.
How did this idea all come about for the 18-year-old who lives on a remote island in West Cork, a seaside region in southern Ireland? Well, one day he spotted a rock on the shore that was coated in oil from a recent spill while kayaking, and attached to the rock were tiny bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters long. This got him thinking that since plastic and oil are nonpolar, the same effect could be created using a magnetic liquid found in electronic devices.
NASA engineer Steve Papell came up with a way to make rocket fuel magnetic in 1963 so that it could move around in zero gravity during the Apollo missions, thus creating the first ferrofluid, or a magnetic liquid. However, unlike rocket fuel, Ferreira’s mixture won’t harm the environment, but rather attract plastic from all types of water, including rivers and oceans. He’s tested 10 microplastics, and the most difficult fibers to remove came from polypropylene (product packaging), but even so, Ferreira’s mixture removed about 80% of polypropylene plastics, on average.