Teenager Removes Microplastics Using Magnets, Wins Google Science Fair

His project could potentially be applied to waste water treatment facilities.
Donovan Alexander

The first media reports of microplastics in the drinking water first appeared in 2017 and were followed by several scientific publications. Microplastics in our water affect humans, animals and the overall environment.

A study in 2015 tried to measure how much microplastic is in the world’s oceans eventually estimating that this number ranges between 15 to 51 trillion pieces, weighing between 93,000 and 236,000 metric tons.  Now, an Irish Teenager, Fionn Ferreira, created an inventive means to extract microplastics from water in his project for Google's 2019 science fair, winning the event. His method is not only effective but has caught the attention of people around the world. 

The Magnetic Solution

Ferreira's project was titled an "investigation into the removal of microplastics from water using ferrofluids." The young scientist created a means to filter microplastics using ferrofluids.

You have probably come across ferrofluids while exploring the deep depths of the internet. These nontoxic magnetic liquids consist of magnetite liquid and oil, even more so they are extremely reactive to magnets. 

Interestingly, ferrofluids attract microplastics because of the nonpolar properties of both. During his project, Ferreira investigated this extraction method on 10 different types of microplastics.

For each test, he measured the concentration of plastics before and after using the filtration methods all with a simple homebuilt spectrometer and microscope. His inspiration for the project started after noticing the pollution near his home. "I live near the seashore and have become increasingly aware of plastic pollution of the oceans"

"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."

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The Results

His method would go on to remove over 85% of plastic except for the polypropylene, which only had a reduction of about 80%. Ferreira believes his method could have a host of applications in urban wastewater treatment were more than a majority of our plastics originate from, as very little is currently done to prevent the microplastics from entering our water.