Last month, Fionn Ferreira made headlines when he took the $50,000 first prize at the 2019 Google Science Fair. At just 18 years old, the Irish teen successfully developed a method to extract microplastics out of water. By creating a mixture called ferrofluid, Ferreira is able to utilize the attraction between molecules to take out the plastic particles.
Having a diameter of 5 nanometers or less, microplastics are small enough to bypass many filtration systems. Unfortunately, the particles end up in waterways and are consumed by small organisms. As an end result from the food chain, humans consume the microplastics as well.
Unsurprisingly, this project is beginning to pave the pathway for future environmental solutions. As a result, many are curious to hear from the mind who founded it all. Recently, we had the opportunity to chat with Fionn Ferreira about his personal experience with the project and his aspirations for the future.
Inspiration for Fionn’s project
The Rising: A few years ago, you founded Miniplot, a company that created gardening kits that include all things necessary to grow plants at home. Would you say this is was the start of where your green innovations began?
Fionn: Living in the countryside of Ireland, I was always passionate about sustainability. I fondly remember gardening with my grandmother as a child and have really enjoyed kayaking and exploring the Irish coastline.
The Rising: Out of all the environmental problems in our world, why choose to solve the microplastic crisis? What drew you to this specific problem?
Fionn: This problem is personal because I saw the effects of microplastic pollution on our environment all the time in Ireland. I also had an idea to tackle it, so it was perfect.
The science underlying the project
The Rising: Can you walk me through how your prototype works? What exactly is ferrofluid?
Fionn: Essentially, my project is a new method to remove microplastics from water using ferrofluids. Ferrofluid is a mixture of vegetable oil and rust powder (called magnetite), which is a magnetic liquid. This liquid is non-polar and attracts plastics, which are also non-polar.
The Rising: During the process of drafting and testing over and over, what was your thought process throughout each trial?
Fionn: I ensured a fair and accurate measurement for each trial.
The Rising: What was your initial reaction to your method for microplastic clean-up working?
Fionn: I was excited to see where it would take me and was looking forward to more tests.
Next steps for Fionn Ferreira
The Rising: How do you see your prototype influencing the life-cycle of plastic down the road?
Fionn: I don’t think that this method is the solution to the plastic crisis. The solution is clear: to stop using plastic. However, because this probably won’t happen for a while, I think that my method could have a significant impact on marine life and the health and wellness of humans.
The Rising: What are your plans for the future? Will we be seeing more environmental projects from you down the road?
Fionn: I have finished school and am going into university. I would like to continue solving more problems like this one.
As an independent inventor, Fionn Ferreira is already making progress with ocean cleanup. However, Ferreira told me that the solution to the plastic crisis isn’t ferrofluid. Instead, it’s to “stop using plastic.”
Although easier said than done, each person can make an impact on reducing pollution. Not everyone is able to utilize magnets to keep waters clean, but many have the ability to ensure the plastic never reaches waterways in the first place.
Note: Small revisions have been made to the interview for the purposes of brevity and clarity.