This Teenager Won the Google Science Fair With a Brilliant Invention

17-year-old Fionn Ferreira from Ireland invented a way to remove microplastics from the oceans

Aug 14, 2019

A teenager from Ireland just took home a $50,000 prize for discovering a method to extract microplastics from water.  The competition, which is sponsored by Google, National Geographic, Lego, Virgin Galactic, and Scientific American, began in 2011 and awards a $50,000 prize to one teenager (ages 13-18) per year. 

Eighteen-year-old Fionn Ferreira won this year’s Google Science Fair due to his incredible innovation, which he thought of as he was kayaking near his home in West Cork, Ireland. 

While out on the water Ferreira saw microplastics (which are bits of plastic 5mm in diameter or smaller) on a rock. 

"It got me thinking," Ferreira told Business Insider. "In chemistry, like attracts like."

This thought set him out to combine magnetite powder with oil, which creates a ferrofluid that can bind to the microplastics.

In this situation, the microplastics "find it easier to go into suspension with the oil than remain suspended in the water," Ferreira wrote in his report. 

Ferreira was inspired to use magnetite powder- a non-toxic iron that is widely available on earth- by a man named Arden Warner, who had discovered that it can help extract oil from water by magnetizing it (and is thus effective at cleaning oil spills).  

Ferreira’s experiment found that the mix of oil and magnetite powder was 87% effective in removing various types of microplastics from water. Pollutants from washing machines (microplastics that come off our clothing) were extracted most successfully from Ferreira’s innovation and polypropylene (plastic particles that come from sandwich bags, water bottles, and grocery bags) were the hardest to extract. 

The discovery is groundbreaking because microplastics are so small that scientists have struggled to remove them from oceans, rivers, lakes, and other important bodies of water. Typical wastewater treatment plants simply do not have the technology to fully capture them so they often make their way to the ocean, where they are likely to be eaten by fish.  

Microplastics come from the breakdown of conventional plastic waste, as well as from cosmetics, such as soaps, scrubs, and shower gels due to the ability of microbeads to exfoliate the skin. These minuscule particles are also inside of our clothing and come off in the washing machine. 

Ferreira is the first to admit that his innovation is not the solution. “The solution is that we stop using plastic altogether,” says the 18-year old innovator whose accomplishments include curating the Schull Planetarian and having a minor planet named after him by MIT. While it may not the be-all-end-all, Ferreira does hope that his technology will be used in wastewater treatment facilities, preventing microplastics from entering waterways, to begin with. Goodnet tip: to avoid consuming and disposing of microplastics, opt towards buying second-hand clothes. New clothes shed significantly larger amounts of microplastics as compared to their older counterparts. You can also reduce microplastic waste by reducing plastic consumption and by avoiding cosmetics with micro-beads and other “scrubbers”. For pollution-free exfoliation try a homemade sugar or salt scrub!

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HILLA BENZAKEN, CONTRIBUTOR
Hilla Benzaken is a dedicated optimist. Her happy place involves cooking, acting, gardening, and fighting for social justice. She writes about all things sustainability, innovation, and DIY.