scorecardAn 18-year old has found a way to use 'magnetic liquid' invented by NASA to remove harmful microplastics from water
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An 18-year old has found a way to use 'magnetic liquid' invented by NASA to remove harmful microplastics from water

An 18-year old has found a way to use 'magnetic liquid' invented by NASA to remove harmful microplastics from water
LifeScience5 min read
Fionn Ferreira won the 2019 Google Science Fair.    Google

  • Microplastics, or tiny bits of plastic less than five millimeters long, accumulate in wastewater before filtering into larger bodies of water likes rivers and oceans.
  • At age 18, Fionn Ferreira developed a method for removing these harmful plastic particles using a liquid first invented by NASA.
  • Ferreira introduced his concept at this year's Google Science Fair. He won the competition and its $50,000 prize.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more.

Fionn Ferreira lives on a remote island in West Cork, a seaside region in southern Ireland. One day while kayaking, he spotted a rock on the shore that had been coated in oil from a recent spill. Attached to the rock were tiny bits of plastic less than five millimeters long - what scientists call "microplastics."

Read more: Americans accidentally eat 200 tiny pieces of towels, beads, and plastic foams every day. Here's how worried you should be.

Because microplastics are so small (about the size of a sesame seed), scientists have struggled to find ways to remove them from the environment. But Ferreira discovered something new when he saw the oil-coated rock on the shore.

"It got me thinking," Ferreira said. "In chemistry, like attracts like."

Both plastic and oil are nonpolar, meaning they're likely to stick to one another in nature. As a budding scientist, Ferreira had a hunch that the same effect could be created using a magnetic liquid found in speakers and electronic devices.

On Monday, Ferreira won the Google Science Fair's $50,000 grand prize for his experiment, which showed that the liquid could extract microplastics from water.

Microplastics are dangerous to marine life and may have consequences for human health

Ted S. Warren/AP

A researcher holds a blue rectangular piece of microplastic.

Microplastic fragments come from a variety of sources, including beauty products, toothpaste, and microfiber towels. They can also hail from larger pieces of plastic that have broken down over time. As a result, microplastics often accumulate in bodies of water like the ocean near Ferreira's home, posing a danger to marine life.

They can also end up in our food and water. Scientists have estimated that Americans consume up to 52,000 microplastic particles each year, but the consequences for human health are still unknown.

One of the main concerns is that microplastics could carry toxic chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) into our bodies. These chemicals have been linked to cancer and reproductive issues.

A 'magnetic liquid' invented by NASA can collect microplastic from water

Ferrofluid

J. B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry Chicago/Getty Images

Spiked patterns in ferro-fluid as seen in the material science displays at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

In 1963, NASA engineer Steve Papell came up with a way to make rocket fuel magnetic so that it could move around in zero gravity during the Apollo missions. In the process, he wound up creating the first ferro-fluid, which is essentially a magnetic liquid.

Today, the substance helps control vibrations in speakers and seal off electronics so they don't become clogged with debris. It's also a key part of Ferreira's plan to remove microplastics from water.

"I absolutely love ferro-fluid," said Ferreira, who makes his own version of the liquid by suspending magnetite powder - a mineral found naturally on earth's surface - in vegetable oil. (The oil left over by fast-food chains like McDonald's works well, he said.)

Unlike rocket fuel, Ferreira's mixture isn't harmful to the environment, but it does attract plastic from all types of water, including rivers and oceans.

Ferreira said the most unique part of his mixture is that it can be used to remove plastic from wastewater (water discarded from homes, businesses, and industrial plants, for example). Studies have shown that the world's wastewater treatment plants aren't equipped to filter out microplastics, despite the fact that they're major contributors to microplastic pollution.

Ferreira just won first place in the Google Science Fair

Fionn

Google

Ferreira accepts his trophy at the Google Science Fair.

For his experiment, Ferreira injected ferro-fluid into small glasses of water contaminated with microplastics. At first, the water turned completely black because of the magnetite, but when Ferreira placed a magnet inside the glass, it started to soak up all the fluid. Eventually, the water inside the glass was completely clear, and mostly free of plastic.

Before embarking on his experiment, Ferreira wagered that his magnetic liquid could remove at least 85% of microplastics from his water samples. By the end, he wound up removing around 88%.

Of the 10 different microplastics he tested, Ferreira said the most difficult fibers to remove came from polypropylene, a type of plastic used in packaging for consumer products. But even then, Ferreira removed around 80% of polypropylene plastics, on average, by the end of the experiment.

The easiest fibers to remove, he said, were those released by washing machine filters. Ferreira said that's an important finding because washing machines are a common source of microplastic pollution.

After traveling to Mountain View, California, for the science fair, Ferreira is now back in Ireland, recovering from jet lag.

"I still really can't believe it," he said of the competition. "There are lots of different emotions in my head at the moment."

Later this year, Ferreira will begin studying at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, a research institution located below sea level. ("What's cooler than being at a university that's six meters under the surface of the sea?" he said.)

At the same time, he'll try to deploy his concept for treating wastewater.

"I'm not saying that my project is the solution," he said. "The solution is that we stop using plastic altogether."

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