• Schull student Fionn Ferreria zaps microplastic pollution

    The sunday times, June 10th 2018

    An Irish teenager has created a liquid that can remove microplastics from water, writes Laoise Neylon. The tiny plastic particles have become a significant source of pollution in seas and oceans, and often end up in fish that people eat.

    Fionn Ferreira, 17, from Schull, Co Cork said that his invention removes microplastics by magnetising them. “Essentially it is a process that works with ferrofluid, a magnetic liquid,” he explained.
     Both oil and plastic are non-polar, which means they do not possess a negative or positive charge, and so in the presence of water they will attract each other and stick together. Ferreira adds oil and magnetite, an iron ore, to the water and this solution attracts the microplastics. “Then I can pull it all out with a magnet,” he said.

     Industry, households, water-treatment centres and mineral-water companies could potentially reduce the microplastic contamination of water by about 87%, he believes. Sophisticated filtration systems capable of removing microplastics do exist, but are not being used because they also remove other items from water, including minerals. Because of its liquid nature, Ferreira thinks his invention could be scaled up and used by industry to reduce pollution. “I’m thinking about a continuous flow system,” he said.
     “There would be a layer of ferrofluid and contaminated water would flow through it.” Any traces of magnetite and vegetable oil that remain would be entirely harmless to the environment, he said. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is currently conducting a review of existing evidence on whether consumption of microplastics is harmful.

    It has yet to establish whether they are present in water at concentrations harmful to human health. Ferreira, a student at Schull Community College, recently won two awards for his idea at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Patent developer Intellectual Ventures also gave him its Insightful Invention Award. It is hoped that Ferreira’s invention can be scaled up to allow water-treatment facilities to remove microplastics at a relatively low cost. Nathan Myhrvold, founder and chief executive of Intellectual Ventures, said: “There are a lot of engineering challenges still to be solved to do that, but the use of chemical and electromagnetic separation techniques together is a potentially powerful combination.” He added that the volume of plastics littering the ocean continued to grow every year, and a huge source of this pollution was municipal wastewater and stormwater. “Any technology that could efficiently allow plastics to be captured from these wastewater flows before they are discharged would be a big win for the environment.”

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