An Irish student has won a global science award for his project which aims to remove microplastics from the world’s oceans. Fionn Ferreira from Ballydehob in west Cork is the overall winner of the 2019 Google Science Fair, an annual science competition open to students all around the world for the youth.
Ferreira was one of 24 global finalists, chosen from a shortlist of 100 entries and because of his winning, he was awarded a $50,000 (€45,000) bursary, at an awards ceremony at the Google international headquarters in Mountain View, California.
The thing about this method is that it uses something that has been available without trying to make something new. Ferreira uses magnets to filter microplastics from bodies of water. The young scientist used a magnetic liquid called ferrofluid, which sticks to plastic, and which is then attracted to the magnets and removed from the water. Rather simple isn’t it?
After testing his method repeatedly (thousands he claimed), he believes his project could remove at least 87% of microplastics from water samples. “I look forward to applying my findings and contributing towards a solution in tackling microplastics in our oceans worldwide,” he said.
This teenager is a regular entrant in the BT Young Scientist Awards and he’s won 12 science awards and he even has a minor planet named after him by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in recognition of his achievement at the 2018 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
Vint Cerf, vice-president at Google, said each entry “was an impressive, original contribution that has real-world implications for some of the world’s toughest problems. Behind every ambitious student are parents and teachers who cheer them on, and push them to keep learning. And to the students, you rock. We can’t wait to see what you do next,” said Cherf.
The 18-year-old said that while he was out on that walk in his coastal hometown of Ballydehob, he ran across a stone with oil and plastic stuck to it. That’s something he’s become more aware of in recent years.
“I was alarmed to find out how many microplastics enter our wastewater system and consequently the oceans,” he stated. That moment was what got Ferreira thinking about how to develop a new extraction method.
The Google Science Fair has been crowning winners for eight years with the help of sponsors like Lego, Scientific American, National Geographic and Virgin Galactic. Students 13 through 18 from around the world are encouraged to submit and present science and technology experiments and results to a panel of judges.
Ferreira said his passion for science and technology came from his curiosity around nature and the environment. He’s excited to further his education at the University of Groningen’s Stratingh Institute for Chemistry in the Netherlands starting in the fall.
Because he lives in a remote part of Ireland, testing resources can be scarce. But that didn’t stop him from accomplishing his goal. He just worked around it. “I want to encourage others by saying you don’t have to test everything in a professional lab. That’s why I built my own equipment,” he said.
Ferreira said his parents are happy at his accomplishment and because they don’t have to fund as much of his college tuition, thanks to the prize money. Well, that’s parents’ happiness for ya.
How to remove microplastics
To refresh our memory (not that you need it, but it’s good to keep reminding ourselves right?) microplastics are pieces of plastic that are typically less than 5 millimeters long. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plastic is the most common type of marine debris found in our oceans and Great Lakes. In even smaller pieces, it’s used as an exfoliator in face wash, body scrubs and toothpaste.
Because of the tiny size of these microplastics, they’re able to pass through water filtration systems and ultimately harm marine life and damage oceans. Those microplastics can end up being digested by humans as well.
According to a recent study, Americans alone eat, drink and breathe between 74,000 and 121,000 microplastic particles each year depending on their age and sex. If you drink bottled water only instead of tap water, you can add up to 90,000 plastic particles to your estimated intake.
In the presence of water, ferrofluids, which is nontoxic magnetic liquids made up of oil and magnetite, an iron- based rock mineral the microplastics are attracted to them because both have similar properties.
For his project, Ferreira added oil and magnetite to water and mixed in a solution emulating plastic waste in the ocean. When the microplastics latched on to the ferrofluids, Ferreira dipped a magnet into the solution three times to remove both substances, leaving clear water. His tests showed the method to be 88% effective in removing a variety of microplastics from water, surpassing Ferreira’s original hypothesis of an 85% removal rate.
Another Irish teen
Ferreira isn’t the only one who’s won a science competition. Adam Kelly, student at Skerries Community College in Dublin, was crowned Ireland’s Young Scientist of the Year. The 17-year-old won both prizes for his project on a tool that helps develop super computers.
By winning the national award, Adam was given the opportunity to represent Ireland in Sofia this week, and after claiming victory there, he’s set to receive €7,000 in prize money for his project. The young Irishman beat 155 other young scientists from 39 countries around the world to take first prize.
“I want to congratulate Adam for his success here at the EUCYS (European Union Contest for Young Scientists). Ireland has consistently done very well at the competition, and Adam has continued this strong record with his achievement here today,” said the head of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition Mari Cahalane.
There were around 100 projects presented at the EUCYS. The contest covered a broad range of scientific areas including biology, chemistry, physics, social sciences, computing, medicine, maths, engineering and the environment. Adams’ project developed a tool to select the optimum algorithm for the simulation of particular quantum circuits to help with the development of super computers.
It’s been something of a stellar 12 months or so for the teenager. Adding to his two award wins in 2019, last November he had an asteroid named after him after winning an international science and engineering award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Phoenix, Arizona, and also won the Science Foundation Ireland Intel ISEF award at SciFest National Final around the same time.