Irish teen may have discovered solution to global plastic crisis

Published by Shamim Malekmian on

May 29th, 2018

A teenage Irish visionary may have discovered a solution to the world’s plastic crisis.

Fionn Ferreira, a 17-year-old student from Schull Community College recently left top scientists at the world’s largest pre-college science fair in awe when he revealed his inventive idea for removing microplastics from the water.

Fionn’s award-winning idea involves the use of a natural magnet to extract plastic particles from the oceans.

“I was constantly hearing about plastic pollution on the news. So, I started looking around for a solution, and it seemed to me that there was none,” Fionn told The Green News.

“I was always interested in environmental issues, but my biggest concern was always plastic pollution, however, when I tested my project at home, and I was able to remove the plastics [from water], that’s when I became really interested in microplastics pollution,” Fionn says.

Tiny plastics in the ocean contaminate water and may seriously endanger marine life. A new study published in the journal Science reveals that juvenile fish have started to chow down on plastic microparticles instead of zooplankton.

This unnatural diet has led to stunted growth, behavioural changes, and will ultimately increase mortality rates among the fish population.

The secondary school student, who delights at the appearance of a challenge, was determined to search for a solution to this problem.

Magnetic Solution

Combining his intelligence and relentless curiosity, the teenage entrepreneur finally discovered a feasible, cost-efficient solution in the admixture of oil and magnetite powder.

“I thought that oil is non-polar [doesn’t possess negative or positive charge] which means it sticks to something that is also non-polar and plastics are non-polar,” Fionn says.

“So, I thought maybe they might stick together… Then I thought what if I mix oil with something magnetic and stick them in water and it could be used as a magnet.”

The combination of oil and magnetite makes the plastic entirely magnetic and easy to remove from the water.

“The microplastics can be removed with the magnet, and the magnetic fluid called ferrofluid can be re-used several times,” he says.

Fionn has tested his prototype and his home-built spectrometer shows that his innovative magnet has the capacity of extracting 87 per cent of microplastics from the water.

The spectrometer is also an invention of its kind. “My spectrometer is an instrument that passes light through a sample. As a result, I can determine what exactly is inside a sample, and it is a very accurate model,” he says.

Bright Future Ahead

In January, Fionn’s proposed ecological solution won the first prize in chemical physical and mathematical sciences at the BT Young Scientist of the Year and was granted the Intel’s Student Award.

The Intel Student award included an all-costs paid trip to Intel-ISEF in Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania where Fionn and his teacher Dr Larissa Kelly represented Ireland at the world’s largest science fair earlier this month.

Two other students, Niamh Ann Kelly and Aaron Hannon, also represented team Ireland alongside Fionn.

Fionn won the American Chemical Society Prize of $4000, the Drug and Chemical Associated Technologies Special Prize of $3000, the Intellectual Ventures Insightful Invention award and an Undergraduate Scholarship from the University of Arizona.

Dr Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures Lab -an organisation which sponsors ground-breaking scientific projects – has now invited the teenage science wizard to travel to Washington this summer to work alongside world-class scientists to develop his prototype.

Fionn says he is hoping to propose more solutions to the world’s ecological problems in the future, but right now his main focus is on his upcoming scientific trip to the US.

“I also have something called the Leaving Cert to worry about.”

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Shamim Malekmian

Shamim is a Senior Reporter at The Green News and a contributing writer to the Irish Examiner, Cork Evening Echo and the Dublin Inquirer.