The younger generation gets a pretty bad rap these days. They’re often depicted as shallow, selfie-obsessed snowflakes who spend all of their time looking at their phones, texting emoticons to each other, and failing to actually experience the real world.
No doubt some young people fit that mold — but not all. Consider Fionn Ferreira, an 18-year-old from Ireland who just won the $50,000 grand prize at the 2019 Google Science Fair for coming up with a process for removing microplastics from the ocean.
Plastics of all kinds are clogging our waterways and oceans, wreaking havoc for marine life. Larger pieces of plastic can be removed with nets and mesh scoops, but microplastics — which are defined as bits of plastic that are less than 5 mm long — pose a different problem. They are so small that they escape water filtration systems, end up in rivers and oceans, and are ingested by all kinds of fish and marine animals. They end up in humans, too — especially if the humans tend to drink a lot of bottled water. But how can something so small be successfully removed from the world’s waterways?
Fionn, who lives in a coastal town in southwest Ireland, noticed tiny bits of plastic sticking to an oil-covered rock. Based on that observation, he began experimenting with a substance called ferrofluids to see whether they also would attract microplastics — because chemistry teaches that like attracts like. His experiments showed that microplastics adhere to ferrofluids, and ferrofluids, and the microplastics attracted to them, can then be removed from waters through the use of magnets — leaving the water free of microplastics.
Fionn Ferreira’s use of ferrofluids to attract microplastics is an elegant but practical solution to a significant problem, and it’s based on a real-world observation — which is often the source of scientific discovery. Thank goodness he didn’t have his head buried in his cellphone when he passed that oily rock on the Irish coast!