Senior Editor
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The Inertia

If you have even a passing interest in the environment—which you should, if you enjoy its fruits—you are aware of the plague of microplastics infesting our oceans. Tiny bits of degraded plastic, smaller than 5mm, are basically everywhere. For a few years now, there’s been a lot of discussion on how to deal with the problem, but an Irish teenager might have come up with the best solution yet. For his efforts, he won $50,000.

Fionn Ferreira, an 18-year-old from West Cork, Ireland, won the Google Science Fair for his ingeniously simple idea. The Science Fair has been around since 2011, and students from age 13 to 18 submit experiments to a panel of judges. Sponsored by Lego, Virgin Galactic, National Geographic and Scientific American, it’s one of the most prestigious science awards a teen can win… but it’s just another impressive feather in Ferreira’s hat. Already, he speaks three languages, has won a dozen other science fair competitions, and MIT even named a minor planet after him.

Up until now, microplastics—which come off clothing during washing, are often included in soaps and facial scrubs, and are created when larger pieces of plastic break down—have been virtually impossible to remove from the water. Small fish eat them, which in turn are eaten by larger fish, which are in turn consumed by us.

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Ferreira mixed oil and magnetite powder into water full of microplastics. The mixture created something called a ferrofluid, which is a liquid that becomes magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field. The microplastics stuck to the ferrofluid, Ferreira simply stuck a magnet in the water and removed the ferrofluid and the plastics with it.

To prove it worked, Ferreira did over 1,000 tests, and the results spoke for themselves. In total, his method was 87 percent effective in removing microplastics from both freshwater and seawater. The next step? Ferreira is hoping to ramp up the technology and begin using it at wastewater treatment facilities, basically stemming the tide of microplastics that flow down our drains and into the ocean each day.

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