Teen Ocean Clean

While most teenagers balk at cleaning their rooms, Fionn Ferreira is cleaning the world’s oceans from microplastics.

Microplastics are small particles less than 5 millimeters long. They come from decomposing plastics, synthetic fibers, and microbeads found in many personal products. They can accumulate toxins and often slip through filtration systems and into our waterways. Aquatic creatures mistake them for food, and then in turn, are consumed by larger fish that humans eat.

Walking the shores near his home in Ireland, Fionn came up with an idea to address this growing concern after finding a rock covered in oil and plastic particles. If oil and plastic stick together, he reasoned, why not use one to attract the other? But then, how do you get the oil out of the water as well?

The teenager incorporated the use of iron oxide, a non-toxic, magnetic powder used to clean up oil spills. By combining iron oxide with oil into what is known as a ferrofluid, he could essentially “go fishing” for microplastics.

Here’s how it works: the ferrofluid is mixed into polluted water. The plastic particles are attracted to the oil and bind to it. The mixture can then be removed from the water with a magnet which attracts the iron oxide. In over a thousand tests, the method was 87% successful.

This simple yet effective approach won Fionn the 2019 Google Science Prize and a scholarship, worth $50,000.

The budding young scientist is headed to the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and hopes to implement his method on a larger scale at water treatment facilities.

While the bigger solution may be to stop using plastics altogether, Fionn’s unique approach is actionable, and addresses the problems of microplastics as they exist right now, promising a cleaner and brighter future ahead.