He’s still at school but Fionn Ferreira from Ireland has just won a major international prize for an idea that he says could help clean the world’s oceans of tiny bits of plastic which threaten sealife – and us humans too.
Fionn is 18 and lives on the wild and beautiful west coast of Ireland, where the Atlantic Ocean stretches out all the way to America.
He says it was his love for the sea that made him want to find a way to solve a dirty problem that is lurking out there under the waves – a problem that adults are just beginning to realise they have been causing for years.
“I go kayaking. I go sailing. That of course had a huge impact on this project,” the schoolboy told the Irish Times newspaper when he got home from receiving an big award in America.
The teenager’s answer to the cleaning the sea won him top prize in a competition for young people that was organised by Google, the American computer technology company. Fionn also took home $50,000 (about 45,000 euros) to spend on his future education in the annual Google Science Fair (https://www.googlesciencefair.com/), beating thousands of other eager young inventors from around the world.
He also got to write his name in space – but more about that later…
The problem he wanted to fix is this: we all throw away huge amounts of plastic. A lot of this plastic ends up in the sea – plastic bags, old toys and trainers, whatever float around and end up on beaches. You might have seen some if you went to the seaside on a summer holiday. It’s a problem other people are trying to fix.
But some of most dangerous plastic in the sea we can’t even see. The power of the ocean breaks plastic up, creating zillions of tiny particles.
For years, people have also been pouring away loads of microscopic plastic beads – so small you need a microscope to see them – when they take a shower or a bath.
These little beads are put into things like shampoo and liquid soap to help scrub us clean. But they have been filling up the oceans, where fish and seabirds take them in when they eat and drink. That does those creatures a lot of harm. And these “microplastics” can also get into our own bodies if we eat seafood. It won’t do you much harm today – the fish we eat is still very good for us. But if we don’t sort out the plastic problem, then humans too will have a big problem.
So what is Fionn’s big idea for these tiny troublemakers? He thinks we might be able to start scooping plastic from the sea with magnets.
I’m sure you can see the obvious difficulty with that, right? Have you ever tried to use a magnet on plastic? Magnets are good at attracting things made of metal. But they are rubbish with plastic. Magnets don’t have any effect on it.
What Fionn did was to pour some powder called magnetite to seawater. This is like a dust made from a kind of stone that is magnetic. It sticks to metal. But Fionn also found that if he stirred up a glass of water that had tiny plastic beads and magnetite powder in it, then the plastic stuck to the magnetite.
If formed little gooey clumps in the water. He then popped a magnet on a stick into his glass and he found that the goo stuck to the magnet. He was able to pull it out of the water and, hey presto!, most of the plastic came out with it.
Of course, the problem now is to do what Fionn did in a small glass for much, much bigger amounts of water. But he is confident, particularly that it can be used to clean our dirty bathwater before we let it run into the sea. “I’m just ready for it to be scaled up and used in waste water treatment to remove microplastics,” he told the Irish Times.
Big companies are interested in his idea, he added: “It will definitely work,” he said.
Fionn’s now off to start studying chemistry at university in The Netherlands. He’s thrilled to win the prize and hopeful that he can have a real positive impact on the world. But he also hopes to have a positive impact on other young people: “I love inspiring other people to do science,” he said.
If you think Fionn’s prize and getting attention from famous scientists is cool, what about this: He’s just had a planet named after him! Pretty impressive.