The Inertia for Good Editor

The Inertia

Following Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup has been a bit of a rollercoaster for some time now. The years-long process of developing Slat’s initial idea saw plenty of detractors and naysayers who eventually got their “I told you so,” moment not long after System 001, aka “Wilson” was sent out into the Pacific on its maiden voyage. Ever since then, we’ve been watching and waiting to see how Slat’s team would bounce back to continue its big-picture mission of cleaning tons of plastic trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“When launching the system, we knew and had to accept, that uncertainty remained,” Slat wrote in a message. “This makes sense, as something like this has never been done before. Especially when considering the interaction between the system and the plastic, there was no way to test it before deploying a cleanup system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Hence, we must learn by doing, developing the technology in an iterative fashion.”

In February, with Wilson back on land for months, Boyan Slat made his first attempt at putting into layman’s terms just what went wrong with the system, leading to an 18-meter-long end section of the system breaking off. This led to problems with Wilson retaining the plastic it collected, occasionally accumulating on the convex side of the system or just overflowing and floating out again.

“Simply understanding why the system wasn’t able to retain plastic — that has been a much more complicated question,” he said. “And that’s because it’s such a chaotic environment.”

To wrap your head around just how difficult it might have been to even start finding the root of the problem, Slat says his team started their research with 27 hypotheses of what may have gone wrong.

“These hypotheses generally fell into two groups: 1) possible explanations for the system to move too slow relative to the plastic, and 2) possible ways in which the system could influence local water dynamics that interfere with the movement of the plastic.”

A collection of data from GPS systems, cameras, and even dye tests conducted in the ocean and more had to be collected for the Ocean Cleanup researchers to find what amounts to a needle in a haystack.

In the end, after analyzing all the data and inspecting every inch of Wilson’s “structural failure,” the team concluded that the problem was more or less an issue of hydrodynamics. Cracks in structure gradually increased over time until a sudden detachment of the section that eventually broke off of Wilson. Slat explained the breakage, the hydrodynamic issues, and how they boiled it all down to this root cause in a long, in-depth update on the Ocean Cleanup website.

System 001 is currently on the Big Island of Hawaii and “in a matter of months,” the plan is to relaunch Wilson from the mainland because it will be more efficient and cost-effective. Once Wilson’s been deployed for the second time, it will stop in Hawaii once again for upgrades and another relaunch.


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