Fionn Ferreira is an 18-year-old from the village of Ballydehob in County Cork, Ireland. But it’s fair to say that he’s not just your average teenager. This young man is already an accomplished scientist. In fact, an invention of his has the potential to be a planet-saver. Ferreira turned his mind to one of today’s most pressing environmental problems. And he came up with something that’s mind-blowing.
Ferreira decided that he wanted to address the problem of proliferating microplastics – fragments less than 0.2 inches in diameter – that pollute our waterways and oceans. Conventional filtering methods fail to capture these tiny pieces of plastic which enter the food chain. The impact of this on human health is as yet undetermined, but scientists are worried.
What Ferreira wanted to do was to find a way of extracting these microplastics from water. One day, out on the sea in his kayak, he spotted an oil-covered rock. Attached to it were many microplastic fragments. The budding scientist wondered if this phenomenon could be harnessed to filter microplastics from water.
Then it was a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) invention from 1963 that attracted Ferreira’s attention. That was ferrofluid, a liquid that has magnetic properties. Could it be that this substance might be used to gather and remove microplastics from water? Ferreira set about experimenting in his home lab, in some cases using improvised equipment. He created his own ferrofluid from a mixture of magnetite powder and everyday cooking oil. The budding inventor found the fluid combined well with the microplastics, and a magnet could then remove the pollutant.
After extensive testing – involving more than 1,000 experiments – Ferreira found that the process worked at test tube level with 87 percent effectiveness. And there seems to be every reason to believe that the process can be scaled up to an industrial level. With this revolutionary idea, the young scientist took the $50,000 Grand Prize at the Google Science Fair in 2019. That seems a fair reward for Ferreira’s hard work and the benefits it may bring.