Aug. 1 2019 12:00 AM

An 18-year-old from Ireland was awarded the $50,000 prize for his magnetic methodology.

Ferrofluid on a magnet

A teenager from Ireland may have just solved the global microplastics pollution problem, according to a story reported in Forbes magazine. His name is Fionn Ferreira, he’s an 18-year-old from West Cork and he’s $50,000 richer for having won the 2019 Google Science Fair for his innovative solution.

You may have heard how the tiny plastic beads used in soaps, shower gels, and facial scrubs to exfoliate skin end up in waterways and oceans. Microplastic particles are also shed by synthetic fiber clothing in washing machines. Small fish eat the plastic, larger fish eat the smaller fish, and the pollutant gets concentrated inside them. When humans eat the fish, we get it inside of us — and the consequences of that aren’t fully understood yet.

The microplastic bits are 5 millimeters or less in diameter and are virtually impossible to remove through filtration during wastewater treatment. Using a combination of oil and magnetite powder, he created a ferrofluid in a glass of water clouded with microplastics. The microplastics bonded with the ferrofluid and oil, which he then extracted using a magnet. Clear water remained. (If you click the link to the story, you can watch the amazing video demonstration.)

The Google Science Fair was launched in 2011. Students aged 13 through 18 who enter show their experiments and results to a panel of judges for the chance to win $50,000. Other sponsors include Lego, Virgin Galactic, National Geographic and Scientific American magazines.

After 1,000 tests, the method proved 87% effective in removing all sorts of microplastics from water. Ferreira hopes to scale the technology to be able to implement it at wastewater treatment facilities where it would prevent microplastics from ever reaching waterways and oceans. The methodology he invented presents a new opportunity to screen for microplastics before fish can consume them.

Those of us concerned about water quality issues should keep an eye on this kid. At 18, Ferreira has already racked up an impressive array of accomplishments. He’s curator at the Schull Planetarium, speaks three languages fluently, plays the trumpet in an orchestra and has had a minor planet named after him by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Oh, and he’s also won 12 previous science fair competitions.