On Monday, Fionn Ferreira, an 18-year-old from Ireland, took home the top prize—which includes, in addition to a lifetime of bragging rights, a $50,000 educational scholarship—at the Google Science Fair for his project on microplastic pollution.
Microplastics are plastic fragments less than 5 millimeters in size and they pose serious environmental and a public health risks. They are ubiquitous, having contaminated the most remote places of the world, including France’s Pyrenees mountains and the bottom of the Mariana Trench; they can be found in tap water and inside marine mammals and fish. While it’s not yet clear how microplastics affect human health, it’s safe to say they are of great concern to scientists.
Enter Ferreira, who speaks three languages, plays the trumpet, and has a dwarf planet named after him. Living near the water in West Cork, he was inspired to study microplastics after becoming “increasingly aware” of plastic ocean pollution. “I was alarmed to find out how many microplastics enter our wastewater system and consequently the oceans,” he writes in his project’s research paper. “This inspired me to try and find out a way to try and remove microplastics from waters before they even reached the sea.”
More than 100 miles from the nearest lab, he conducted all of his research at his home, fueled by hot chocolates from his parents. After running more than 1,000 tests (and starting an accidental fire), he figured out a way to remove about 87 percent of microplastic from water by using a magnetic liquid, or ferrofluid. The challenge now, he says, is to bring the project to scale.
Scientists congratulated Ferreira on Twitter, including YouTuber Dianna Cowern (also known as Physics Girl) and Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to travel in space, who wrote, “Channeling creativity and curiosity into ingenuity can change the world.”
I chatted with Ferreira this week via Skype about his inspiration for the project, dismantling his parent’s washing machine, his take on moving to Mars, and how, maybe, we shouldn’t just rely on kids to save the planet.
Of all areas of research to choose from, why did you choose to focus on microplastics?
I think microplastics are a huge problem here and all over the world. Microplastics not only are a huge threat to nature, but also a huge threat to ourselves. They bioaccumulate in us: If we eat fish containing microplastic, they may cause us harm and are linked to cancer.
I found a method using ferrofluid with non-toxic iron oxide powder to remove microplastics from water. I think ferrofluid is one of the coolest liquids in the world. It’s a magnetic liquid. It makes really cool shapes when you bring magnets close to it. Currently, there’s no method to remove microplastics from water. So I kind of thought my project was unique.
“Currently, there’s no method to remove microplastics from water. So I kind of thought my project was unique.”
I think you’re not the only one who thought it was unique. How did you come up with the idea to combine oil and magnetite?
I found a stone at our seashore—we had a recent oil spill—and found little bits of plastic stuck in it. And this got me thinking, why is this happening? It turns out, oil and bits of plastic both have the same polarity [a physical property that determines if a substance can be dissolved by or attract another]. In chemistry, like attracts like, which means non-polar things attract non-polar things.
I first just added some vegetable oil to a sample containing plastics, and the plastics stuck in the vegetable oil. Then I thought, maybe I could further this slightly because I wanted to include a really cool part of chemistry. I thought, how can I remove this oil from water? And that’s how I thought of maybe adding magnetized powder and making this into a ferrofluid, something that I have worked with in school.