Fionn Ferreira, an 18-year-old from West Cork, Ireland, already boasts a long list of accomplishments — 12 science fair awards, 384 planetarium lectures, and a minor planet named after him.
Earlier this week, he added another success: winning the 2019 Google Science Fair competition for his investigation into removing microplastics from water.
Grand Prize winner at @googlescifair Fionn Ferreira devised a system that removes microplastics from water using non-toxic iron oxide. He was able to pull 85% of 10 different types of microplastics out of the water. Read about all the winners here: https://t.co/sT71a0MRP8pic.twitter.com/c62vk3WLJa— Scientific American (@sciam) July 29, 2019
Ferreira used a combination of oil and magnetite powder to create a ferrofluid, a liquid that becomes magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field. When introduced to water, microplastics quickly bind to the ferrofluid and could then be removed using strong magnets, leaving only water behind.
As the Google Science Fair grand prize winner, Ferreira received $50,000.
“We are so impressed with all of this year’s Google Science Fair finalists,” said Vint Cerf, Google chief internet evangelist and a judge for this year’s competition. “Fionn and this year’s other global finalists are sure to be rising stars in the STEM world — we can’t wait to see what they come up with next!”
The Google Science Fair, first launched in 2011, allows students between ages 13 and 18 to share their experiments and scientific discoveries in front of a panel of judges. The competition is also sponsored by Lego, Virgin Galactic, National Geographic, and Scientific American.
Ferreira conducted about 1,000 trials, and his method proved to be about 87% effective in removing microplastics from water.
Plastic materials that have a diameter of less than 5 millimeters are considered microplastics. They're commonly found in soaps, facial scrubs, and shampoos. They can also come off clothing that contains materials like polyester when it is being washed. Microplastics are too small to be filtered out during wastewater treatment, and often end up in oceans, where they are nearly impossible to remove.
“I live near the seashore and have become increasingly aware of plastic pollution in the oceans,” Ferreira said in his scientific proposal. “I was alarmed to find out how many microplastics enter our wastewater system and consequently the oceans. This inspired me to try and find out a way to try and remove microplastics from waters before they even reached the sea.”
Once microplastics enter the seas and other water bodies, small fish, unable to distinguish between small plastic material and food, ingest the particles. The small marine animals are then eaten by larger fish that are later consumed by humans.
Even though Ferreira’s experiment shows promise, his solution would only address the symptoms of the world’s plastic problem, not its root.
“There is no doubt that the most effective way to reduce microplastic pollution in oceans is to use less plastics and ensure that plastics used can be recycled and separated to prevent them from entering our wastewater, but the reality is that more and more of the products we use contain plastics and potentially degrade into microplastics before entering our wastewater,” Ferreira said.
He conducted the tests on the 10 most commonly used plastics, including nylon, polyester, and other machine-washable fabrics. He found that the plastics most easily removed using his ferrofluid method were those from the fabrics, and the hardest to remove were polypropylene plastics, like those used in consumer product packaging.
Still, Ferreira hopes to scale the technology to be able to implement at wastewater treatment facilities to help prevent microplastic pollution from reaching open water.
“Once plastics enter our oceans, they are practically impossible to extract,” he said.