A grim reality the world has had to face in the modern age is the fact that the planet’s waterways are overwhelmingly polluted. Much of it is unfortunately thanks to the technologies and products engineered in the past.
Humans need to put their waste somewhere; most of the time it is the ocean that gets the tough task of handling it all.
The National Ocean Service at the U.S. Department of Commerce reports that most ocean pollution begins on land. In fact, 80% of pollution that is prevalent in the marine environment comes from land, the group says. The biggest contributors are from nonpoint sources. The group writes:
“Nonpoint source pollution includes many small sources, like septic tanks, cars, trucks, and boats, plus larger sources, such as farms, ranches, and forest areas. Millions of motor vehicle engines drop small amounts of oil each day onto roads and parking lots. Much of this, too, makes its way to the sea.”
One of the places that effluence gathers and creates visible pollution ‘soups’ is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Patch is a supposed Texas-sized, floating island of marine pollutants. It is also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex. Plastics and other pollutants apparently swirl around the ocean from the West Coast of North America all the way to Japan, according to National Geographic.
The Ocean Clean-up Project
Expertise has been garnered to eradicate pollution in the ocean, initiatives that have been realised in response to concerted pleadings from environmentalist communities. The technological solutions envisioned are challenges faced by those with a bent for engineering design and involve a range of organizations.
Conventional methods of ocean clean-up have involved trawling through the oceans with nets to catch plastics and other floating pollutants. One organization developing pollution-ending technologies, Ocean Cleanup, believes this method is slow, inefficient, and in some cases harmful.
In June of 2016, Ocean Cleanup - a non-profit foundation - unveiled a prototype of their large-scale plastic catcher.
The Ocean Cleanup Project’s Prototype - Credit: YouTube.com
Boyan Slat is a 21-year-old Dutch inventor and entrepreneur and also the founder and CEO of the Ocean Cleanup project. He is behind the novel ocean-cleaning design; a design which was named one of Time Magazine’s top 25 inventions of 2015.
“Why move through the ocean, if the ocean can move through you? So, I came up with this passive system, which would allow the natural ocean currents to do the hard work for us,” Slat told an audience in a prototype unveiling.
The prototype funnels plastics and garbage into an area where it all collects in a V-shape formation barrier. The prototype prevents plastics from traversing physical barriers and targets floating plastic - on and near the surface. The organization installed the prototype in June of 2016. They are ready to peruse their findings and present arguments for the further utilization of the technology. The feasibility of the project will be calculated this year, and if successful the world will see the first placement of the plastic catcher by the end of 2017.
A spokesman for the Project commented, “Computer models showed that with a single one of those systems, deployed for ten years, we should be able to clean up about half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Or more, if we were to deploy more systems.”
Has it lived up to the hype?
Two oceanographers, Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein, have had their reservations about the feasibility of the technology. In an email to the Guardian, Martini wrote that Ocean Cleanup was not well read on “oceanography, ecology, engineering and marine debris distribution.”
The oceanographers are not sure the designs Ocean Cleanup have presented will be useful in capturing the volume of plastic. They felt strongly enough to offer their own review of how unfeasible the project is.
Other experts point out that it is better to trap plastic at source, instead of waiting for it to disperse across a large area of ocean. It has been estimated that it can take 50 years for plastic that has just been introduced into the ocean, to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The Guardian reports that 19 billion pounds of plastic will make it into our oceans this year alone. Further engineering innovation is needed to nip the problem in the bud.
Lapping up the oil
Cleaning up the mess resulting from engineering endeavours has also become a bone of contention, especially with offshore oil drilling operations. Oil spills are a nasty by-product of the oil industry and of great harm to the oceans’ ecosystems.
A group of science and engineering researchers at Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago have presented a possible solution to minimizing the effects oil spills have on the ocean and its marine wildlife. They suggest that they could soak it up before it becomes a problem.
The researchers presented the Oleo Sponge to the internet this March; an invention which soaks up oil and petroleum products and removes them from the water.
The laboratory showed in a demonstration that the Oleo Sponge worked efficiently at minimizing prevalent oil within water, and fared better than “industry-standard” technologies. The sponge is also reusable. The researchers say they are still testing the product, but are looking for licensing partners to allow them to sell the sponge to private companies.
A prototype of a sponge that can be used to extract oil from water. Credit: The University of Chicago
“We already have a library of molecules that can grab oil, but the problem is how to get them
into a useful structure and bind them there permanently,” said Seth Darling, a student of the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering. He is one of the scientists contributing to the new sponge.
As Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, said, “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” She may have lived before the world faced such unprecedented levels of pollution, but her words, aided by her fertile imagination, ring true.
"Argonne News Brief: Oleo Sponge Soaks up Oil Spills from Water." YouTube. 06 Mar. 2017. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
"Boyan Slat Unveils The Ocean Cleanup Prototype." YouTube. 30 June 2016. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
Kratochwill, Lindsey. "Too Good to Be True? The Ocean Cleanup Project Faces Feasibility Questions." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 26 Mar. 2016. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.