12-Year-Old Girl Invents Microplastics Detecting Device to Save Our Oceans

Microplastics

For 12-year-old Anna Du a love of the ocean and marine animals inspired her to build a device that hunts for microplastics.

These tiny plastic particles are barely visible to the naked eye, but they pollute aquatic ecosystems around the world, posing a serious threat to marine life.
“One day when I was at Boston Harbor, I noticed there was a lot of plastics on the sand, I tried picking some up, but there seemed to be so many more, and it just seemed impossible to clean it all up,” the sixth grader from Andover, Massachusetts, told Boston 25 News.

So Du created an underwater ROV, or remotely operated vehicle, that uses infrared to detect microplastics in the ocean.
“I hope to be able to spatially map where microplastics are accumulating,” she told Fast Company.

Du chose infrared not only because it keeps costs low, the technique also helps scientists distinguish microplastics from other, nonhazardous materials underwater without having to send samples to a lab.

The sixth grader is now gaining national attention for her invention, called the “Smart Infrared Based ROV to Identify and Remove Microplastics from Marine Environments.” She was recently named a finalist in the 2018 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

Du notes in her submission video for the annual challenge that 8 million metric tons of plastics are being dumped into the ocean every year. This plastic “constantly sinks to the ocean floor, making it virtually impossible to clean up,” she says.

This marine debris never fully biodegrades. Instead, waves and sunlight break it up into smaller and smaller pieces.

“Some fish may eat the microplastics and those fish will be consumed up the food chain, throughout the global ecosystem and ultimately ending up on our plates, potentially causing a big health problem as toxins accumulate in our bodies,” she continues.

Now that she’s a finalist in the challenge, she’ll get to work with 3M’s scientists and engineers to help incubate her idea. Eventually, she wants to create a machine that can also collect the plastic it finds, aiming to make “the most efficient machine cleaning up plastics,” she told Fast Company.

When the young genius grows up, she wants to pursue a career that will help make a positive difference.

“I hope to be … an engineer because I love the ocean and marine animals, and I want to do something to help,” she says on her bio page. “In the future, with my engineering, I hope to be able to save people with all of my inventions.”

‘Electrogeochemistry’ captures carbon, produces fuel, offsets ocean acidification

carbon

Limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius will require not only reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, but also active removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This conclusion from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has prompted heightened interest in “negative emissions technologies.”

A new study published June 25 in Nature Climate Change evaluates the potential for recently described methods that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through an “electrogeochemical” process that also generates hydrogen gas for use as fuel and creates by-products that can help counteract ocean acidification.

First author Greg Rau, a researcher in the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz and visiting scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said this technology significantly expands the options for negative emissions energy production.

The process uses electricity from a renewable energy source for electrolysis of saline water to generate hydrogen and oxygen, coupled with reactions involving globally abundant minerals to produce a solution that strongly absorbs and retains carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Rau and other researchers have developed several related methods, all of which involve electrochemistry, saline water, and carbonate or silicate minerals.

“It not only reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide, it also adds alkalinity to the ocean, so it’s a two-pronged benefit,” Rau said. “The process simply converts carbon dioxide into a dissolved mineral bicarbonate, which is already abundant in the ocean and helps counter acidification.”

The negative emissions approach that has received the most attention so far is known as “biomass energy plus carbon capture and storage” (BECCS). This involves growing trees or other bioenergy crops (which absorb carbon dioxide as they grow), burning the biomass as fuel for power plants, capturing the emissions, and burying the concentrated carbon dioxide underground.

“BECCS is expensive and energetically costly. We think this electrochemical process of hydrogen generation provides a more efficient and higher capacity way of generating energy with negative emissions,” Rau said.

He and his coauthors estimated that electrogeochemical methods could, on average, increase energy generation and carbon removal by more than 50 times relative to BECCS, at equivalent or lower cost. He acknowledged that BECCS is farther along in terms of implementation, with some biomass energy plants already in operation. Also, BECCS produces electricity rather than less widely used hydrogen.

“The issues are how to supply enough biomass and the cost and risk associated with putting concentrated carbon dioxide in the ground and hoping it stays there,” Rau said.

The electrogeochemical methods have been demonstrated in the laboratory, but more research is needed to scale them up. The technology would probably be limited to sites on the coast or offshore with access to saltwater, abundant renewable energy, and minerals. Coauthor Heather Willauer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory leads the most advanced project of this type, an electrolytic-cation exchange module designed to produce hydrogen and remove carbon dioxide through electrolysis of seawater. Instead of then combining the carbon dioxide and hydrogen to make hydrocarbon fuels (the Navy’s primary interest), the process could be modified to transform and store the carbon dioxide as ocean bicarbonate, thus achieving negative emissions.

“It’s early days in negative emissions technology, and we need to keep an open mind about what options might emerge,” Rau said. “We also need policies that will foster the emergence of these technologies.”

Coral reefs ‘will be overwhelmed by rising oceans’

Coral reefs

Scientists have uncovered a new threat to the world’s endangered coral reefs. They have found that most are incapable of growing quickly enough to compensate for rising sea levels triggered by global warming.

The study suggests that reefs – which are already suffering serious degradation because the world’s seas are warming and becoming more acidic – could also become overwhelmed by rising oceans.

The research – led by scientists at Exeter University and published in Nature this week – involved studying growth rates for more than 200 tropical western Atlantic and Indian Ocean reefs. It was found only 9% of these reefs had the ability to keep up with even the most optimistic rates of sea-level rises forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “For many reefs across the Caribbean and Indian Ocean regions, where the study focused, rates of growth are slowing due to coral reef degradation,” said Professor Chris Perry, of Exeter University. “Meanwhile, rates of sea-level rise are increasing – and our results suggest reefs will be unable to keep up. As a result, water depths above most reefs will increase rapidly through this century.”

Sea levels rose by several inches over the past century and measurements indicate the speed of this increase is now rising significantly. Two key factors are involved: climate change is making ocean water warmer and so it expands. And as ice sheets and glaciers melt, they increase amounts of water in the oceans.

At the same time, reefs are being weakened by ocean warming and also by ocean acidification, triggered as more and more the seas absorb more and more carbon dioxide. These effects lead to bleaching events that kill off vast stretches of coral and limits their ability to grow.

“Our predictions, even under the best case scenarios, suggest that by 2100 the inundation of reefs will expose coastal communities to significant threats of shoreline change,” said co-author Prof Peter Mumby of Queensland University.

This point was backed by US marine scientist Ilsa Kuffner writing in a separate comment piece for Nature. “The implications of the study are dire. Many island nations and territories are set to quickly lose crucial natural resources.”

The seed that could bring clean water to millions

f-sand

Carnegie Mellon University’s Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering Professors Bob Tilton and Todd Przybycien recently co-authored a paper with Ph.D. students Brittany Nordmark and Toni Bechtel, and alumnus John Riley, further refining a process that could soon help provide clean water to many in water-scarce regions. The process, created by Tilton’s former student and co-author Stephanie Velegol, uses sand and plant materials readily available in many developing nations to create a cheap and effective water filtration medium, termed “f-sand.”

“F-sand” uses proteins from the Moringa oleifera plant, a tree native to India that grows well in tropical and subtropical climates. The tree is cultivated for food and natural oils, and the seeds are already used for a type of rudimentary water purification. However, this traditional means of purification leaves behind high amounts of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) from the seeds, allowing bacteria to regrow after just 24 hours. This leaves only a short window in which the water is drinkable.

Velegol, who is now a professor of chemical engineering at Penn State University, had the idea to combine this method of water purification with sand filtration methods common in developing areas. By extracting the seed proteins and adsorbing (adhering) them to the surface of silica particles, the principal component of sand, she created f-sand. F-sand both kills microorganisms and reduces turbidity, adhering to particulate and organic matter. These undesirable contaminants and DOC can then be washed out, leaving the water clean for longer, and the f-sand ready for reuse.

While the basic process was proven and effective, there were still many questions surrounding f-sand’s creation and use — questions Tilton and Przybycien resolved to answer.

Would isolating certain proteins from the M. oleifera seeds increase f-sand’s effectiveness? Are the fatty acids and oils found in the seeds important to the adsorption process? What effect would water conditions have? What concentration of proteins is necessary to create an effective product?

The answers to these questions could have big implications on the future of f-sand.

Fractionation

The seed of M. oleifera contains at least eight different proteins. Separating these proteins, a process known as fractionation, would introduce another step to the process. Prior to their research, the authors theorized that isolating certain proteins might provide a more efficient finished product.

However, through the course of testing, Tilton and Przybycien found that this was not the case. Fractionating the proteins had little discernible effect on the proteins’ ability to adsorb to the silica particles, meaning this step was unnecessary to the f-sand creation process.

The finding that fractionation is unnecessary is particularly advantageous to the resource-scarce scenario in which f-sand is intended to be utilized. Leaving this step out of the process helps cut costs, lower processing requirements, and simplify the overall process.
Fatty Acids

One of the major reasons M. oleifera is cultivated currently is for the fatty acids and oils found in the seeds. These are extracted and sold commercially. Tilton and Przybycien were interested to know if these fatty acids had an effect on the protein adsorption process as well.

They found that much like fractionation, removing the fatty acids had little effect on the ability of the proteins to adsorb. This finding also has beneficial implications for those wishing to implement this process in developing regions. Since the presence or absence of fatty acids in the seeds has little effect on the creation or function of f-sand, people in the region can remove and sell the commercially valuable oil, and still be able to extract the proteins from the remaining seeds for water filtration.

Concentration

Another parameter of the f-sand manufacturing process that Tilton and Przybycien tested was the concentration of seed proteins needed to create an effective product. The necessary concentration has a major impact on the amount of seeds required, which in turn has a direct effect on overall efficiency and cost effectiveness.

The key to achieving the proper concentration is ensuring that there are enough positively charged proteins to overcome the negative charge of the silica particles to which they are attached, creating a net positive charge. This positive charge is crucial to attract the negatively charged organic matter, particulates, and microbes contaminating the water.

This relates to another potential improvement to drinking water treatment investigated by Tilton, Przybycien, and Nordmark in a separate publication. In this project, they used seed proteins to coagulate contaminants in the water prior to f-sand filtration. This also relies on controlling the charge of the contaminants, which coagulate when they are neutralized. Applying too much protein can over-charge the contaminants and inhibit coagulation.

“There’s kind of a sweet spot in the middle,” says Tilton, “and it lies in the details of how the different proteins in these seed protein mixtures compete with each other for adsorption to the surface, which tended to broaden that sweet spot.”

This broad range of concentrations means that not only can water treatment processes be created at relatively low concentrations, thereby conserving materials, but that there is little risk of accidentally causing water contamination by overshooting the concentration. In areas where exact measurements may be difficult to make, this is crucial.

Water Hardness

Water hardness refers to the amount of dissolved minerals in the water. Although labs often use deionized water, in a process meant to be applied across a range of real world environments, researchers have to prepare for both soft and hard water conditions.

Tilton and Przybycien found that proteins were able to adsorb well to the silica particles, and to coagulate suspended contaminants, in both soft and hard water conditions. This means that the process could potentially be viable across a wide array of regions, regardless of water hardness.

Tilton and Przybycien recently published a paper on this research, “Moringa oleifera Seed Protein Adsorption to Silica: Effects of Water Hardness, Fractionation, and Fatty Acid Extraction,” in ACS Langmuir.

Overall, the conclusions that Tilton, Przybycien, and their fellow authors were able to reach have major benefits for those in developing countries looking for a cheap and easily accessible form of water purification. Their work puts this novel innovation one step closer to the field, helping to forge the path that may one day see f-sand deployed in communities across the developing world. They’ve shown that the f-sand manufacturing process displays a high degree of flexibility, as it is able to work at a range of water conditions and protein concentrations without requiring the presence of fatty acids or a need for fractionation.

“It’s an area where complexity could lead to failure — the more complex it is, the more ways something could go wrong,” says Tilton. “I think the bottom line is that this supports the idea that the simpler technology might be the better one.”

Vegan-friendly fashion is actually bad for the environment!

Animal-friendly fashion

‘Animal-friendly’ fashion alternatives could do more harm to the environment than fur and leather-based clothing, experts say. Many vegan-friendly fashion products produce thousands of synthetic fibres that harm ocean creatures, but this is often overlooked by consumers.

Synthetic garments also come from petroleum, do not biodegrade and often don’t last as long as their leather counterparts, environmental researchers say.

Ethical shoppers are increasingly looking to buy polyester and acrylic imitations of leather products, but this could be harming the environment more than people think.
‘We’ve got these two uber issues – animal welfare and overconsumption of plastic – that are coming up against each other,’ Sydney-based sustainable fashion consultant Clara Vuletich told New Scientist as part of an in-depth feature.
Some argue that using animals for their skin is cruel while others say the longevity of animal-based textiles makes them environmentally friendly.
‘Maybe you could go for a thick, quilted cotton jacket, but even then, cotton farming typically uses a lot of water and pesticides,’ she said.
Increasingly high street retailers are promoting vegan clothing.
Mango has a Mango Committed range range made entirely from environmentally friendly, organic, recycled cotton, recycled polyester and Tencel (a wood fibre sourced from sustainably managed forests).
Zara’s Join Life collection has garments made from recycled wool, Tencel and organic cotton, which uses 90 percent less water to produce than conventional cotton.

The results found that Kangaroo leather was the most sustainable material followed by four synthetic vegan materials – polyester, acrylic, nylon and polyurethane leather.
However, according to Lisa Heinze, who is doing a PhD on sustainable fashion at the University of Sydney, the index has a major limitation in that it doesn’t consider how consumers use clothes or what happens to them when they’re discarded.
Only looking at the environmental costs or production without taking into account the impacts of how people use them means it’s inherently limited, she believes
A woollen coat is likely to last longer than a synthetic one and doesn’t leach plastic microfibres that cause havoc in the ocean.
‘Once a synthetic jacket ends up in the landfill, it’s never going to break down,’ Ms Heinze told New Scientist.
The results found that Kangaroo leather was the most sustainable material followed by four synthetic vegan materials – polyester, acrylic, nylon and polyurethane leather.
However, according to Lisa Heinze, who is doing a PhD on sustainable fashion at the University of Sydney, the index has a major limitation in that it doesn’t consider how consumers use clothes or what happens to them when they’re discarded.

Only now are scientists understanding the effects of these tiny fibres.
A shocking study from 2016 revealed that polyester fleece jackets release up to two grams of microfibres per wash which cause damage to marine life.
The tiny plastic fibres – thinner than a human hair – are eaten by plankton and shellfish when they reach the ocean and can ultimately be consumed by humans.
Plastic fibres from household laundry have been found in our food, from blue mussels to table salt and honey.
Experts from the Italian National Research Council say up to 300 fibres per liter escape in the wastewater from family washing machines and that synthetic clothing is 16 times more damaging for the environment than microbeads.

How Does the World Cup Impact the Environment?

 World Cup
The World Cup is labeled by many as the greatest show on Earth. And rightly so. It’s the biggest event for the most popular spectator sport in the world. But with all the ecstasy, agony and edge-of-your-seat action, the environment is hardly at the front of people’s minds. That said, there is plenty to be considered for the environmental ups and downs of the pinnacle of international football. Read on as we look at the environmental impact of the World Cup.
Over the past 15 years or so, a number of sporting events have tried to market their sustainability. It’s no surprise. As we’ve become more aware of climate change and the need for sustainability, promoting a green ethos to a world cup can only boost a potential host country’s bid.
But it’s incredibly difficult to keep up with that sustainable attitude when most World Cup hosts are required to build multiple stadiums in the space of less than a decade.
Germany’s 2006 effort was arguably a stand-out success with free public transport for fans, free bicycle parking and multiple stadiums using solar power and rainwater collection. That, combined with a relatively short distance for fans to travel between games and FIFA’s carbon offsetting program, resulted in the first-ever carbon neutral World Cup.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an example other countries could match. Four years later, the South Africa world cup accounted for eight times the emissions of Germany’s.
In Brazil (2014), FIFA invested in solar panels, water conservation and waste reduction among other initiatives around the 12 World Cup stadia. However, critics have suggested that there was no effort to tackle the impact on the rest of the country during the “Copa Verde” – or, Green Cup.
The 2018 World Cup, held in Russia, was the first world cup subject to FIFA’s new green certification requirements for stadia. And, yes, the 12 stadia used less energy and water and were built with reduced impact on the environment.

Looking to the future, Qatar has announced that the 2022 World Cup will be carbon-neutral. Qatari officials aim to reduce water and electricity consumption, along with total carbon emissions, before the beginning of the tournament.

Giant African baobab trees die suddenly after thousands of years

baobab trees

Some of Africa’s oldest and biggest baobab trees have abruptly died, wholly or in part, in the past decade, according to researchers.

The trees, aged between 1,100 and 2,500 years and in some cases as wide as a bus is long, may have fallen victim to climate change, the team speculated.

“We report that nine of the 13 oldest … individuals have died, or at least their oldest parts/stems have collapsed and died, over the past 12 years,” they wrote in the scientific journal Nature Plants, describing “an event of an unprecedented magnitude”.
Among the nine were four of the largest African baobabs. While the cause of the die-off remains unclear, the researchers “suspect that the demise of monumental baobabs may be associated at least in part with significant modifications of climate conditions that affect southern Africa in particular”.

Between 2005 and 2017, the researchers probed and dated “practically all known very large and potentially old” African baobabs – more than 60 individuals in all. Collating data on girth, height, wood volume and age, they noted the “unexpected and intriguing fact” that most of the very oldest and biggest trees died during the study period.

The baobab is the biggest and longest-living flowering tree, according to the research team. It is found naturally in Africa’s savannah region and outside the continent in tropical areas to which it was introduced. It is a strange-looking plant, with branches resembling gnarled roots reaching for the sky, giving it an upside-down look.

The iconic tree can live to be 3,000 years old and serves as a massive store of water, and bears fruit that feeds animals and humans. Its leaves are boiled and eaten as an accompaniment similar to spinach or used to make traditional medicines, while the bark is pounded and woven into rope, baskets, cloth, and waterproof hats.

The purpose of the study was to learn how the trees become so enormous. The researchers used radiocarbon dating to analyze samples taken from different parts of each tree’s trunk. They found that the trunk of the baobab grows from not one but multiple core stems. According to that, baobabs are “very difficult to kill”.

Pope Francis urges oil and gas groups to tackle climate change

Climate change

The Pope has warned major oil company heads that there was “no time to lose” to address climate change and urged them to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels.“This is a challenge of epochal proportions,” said Pope Francis on Saturday, as he addressed a summit of energy leaders at the Vatican that included the chief executives of BP, ExxonMobil, Equinor and Eni.
The Pope has warned major oil company heads that there was “no time to lose” to address climate change and urged them to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels. “This is a challenge of epochal proportions,” said Pope Francis on Saturday, as he addressed a summit of energy leaders at the Vatican that included the chief executives of BP, ExxonMobil, Equinor and Eni.

The Pope has warned major oil company heads that there was “no time to lose” to address climate change and urged them to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels.

“This is a challenge of epochal proportions,” said Pope Francis on Saturday, as he addressed a summit of energy leaders at the Vatican that included the chief executives of BP, ExxonMobil, Equinor and Eni.

The Pope said it was “disturbing and a cause for real concern” that carbon emissions had continued to rise following the Paris climate agreement that commits to keeping the rise in global temperatures to less than 2C from the pre-industrial era.

“Even more worrying is the continued search for new fossil fuel reserves, whereas the Paris agreement clearly urged keeping most fossil fuels underground,” he added, speaking to an audience that included Lord John Browne, the former head of BP, and Larry Fink, the BlackRock chief.

The unusual gathering of top energy chiefs at the Vatican underscores the growing role that the Roman Catholic Church has played in advocating climate protection — as well as oil and gas companies’ increasing focus on this issue.
Pope Francis said those efforts were “commendable” but might not be enough to “turn the corner in time” to limit global warming.

The energy summit, titled “Energy Transition and Care for Our Common Home”, took place on Friday and Saturday in Rome, and the Pope addressed the group on Saturday morning.

The Pope called on oil and gas companies to find ways to meet the world’s energy needs — and provide energy access to people who do not have it — while simultaneously transitioning to energy sources that are less polluting.

Backpack ponchos: Peru’s solution to plastic pollution

backpack with a built-in poncho

Trash is not garbage. This is the motto of one of Peru’s most innovative recycling campaigns, one that has already turned a million plastic bottles into thousands of ponchilas.

In Peru, a ponchila – a combination of the Spanish words “poncho” and “mochila” – refers to a backpack with a built-in poncho. The items were designed to protect the poorest children in the Andes, many of whom must travel several kilometers a day, often in inclement weather, to get to school.

And ponchilas have one other important benefit: Each item is made out of 80 recycled plastic bottles.

“With this initiative, we are recovering a lot of plastic that could end up in landfills, dumps or in the oceans,” says Miguel Nárvaez, head of social and business responsibility at Cencosud, a supermarket chain and one of the companies that leads the campaign.
The ponchilas project started in 2016 when Cencosud, Agua San Luis (owned by Coca-Cola) and Pacífico Seguros set out to collaborate to reduce school dropouts in the Andes highlands because of extreme temperatures and the long distances that children must travel to get to school.

The companies invited citizens to support the initiative by recycling their plastic drinking bottles during the summer, when consumption is high.

In 2017, the projected produced 6,000 ponchos; another 7,000 have already been made this year. But this was not the only achievement. “Thanks to the campaign, almost 40 percent of the customers of our supermarkets began to recycle plastic for the first time,” says Narváez. “For us that represents a relevant impact.”
In 2018, the Ministry of Environment of Peru joined the campaign, which actively works to promote sustainable consumption and innovative ways to reuse disposable plastics.

“With this initiative what we are doing is closing the circle, using our waste and giving them an added value through recycling,” says the Environment Minister, Fabiola Muñoz.
In Peru, 18,000 tons of waste are generated every day, of which 10 percent is plastic; very little is recycled.
The national government is currently promoting a bill in Congress to boost the circular economy by reducing the consumption of plastics and promoting the use of recycled materials.
Every minute, people around the world use one million plastic bottles, and most of them end up in the oceans, where they harm wildlife.
Peru is the host of the celebrations of the 2018 World Environment Day celebrations for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Avoiding meat and dairy is reducing harmful effect on Earth

Avoiding meat

Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.
The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other recent research shows 86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans. The scientists also found that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing.
More than 80% of farmland is used for livestock but it produces just 18% of food calories and 37% of protein.
The study, published in the journal Science, created a huge dataset based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries and covering 40 food products that represent 90% of all that is eaten. It assessed the full impact of these foods, from farm to fork, on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification).

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” he said. “Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”

The analysis also revealed a huge variability between different ways of producing the same food. For example, beef cattle raised on deforested land result in 12 times more greenhouse gases and use 50 times more land than those grazing rich natural pasture. But the comparison of beef with plant protein such as peas is stark, with even the lowest impact beef responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and 36 times more land.