How young inventor’s anger at microplastics in waters of west Cork led to innovation that’s up for EU-wide award

Fionn Ferreira examining possible micro-plastics in water under a microscope at the University of Groningen earlier this year. Photo: Jan Reinier Van Der Vliet

Caroline O'Doherty

When Fionn Ferreira saw microplastics proliferating on the shore around his west Cork home, at first he got angry. Then he got inventive.

His resulting innovation has now taken him to the finals of a prestigious international competition.

The 22-year-old from Ballydehob has developed a method of extracting the microscopic fragments of plastic that are omnipresent in our waters.

“While I was in Ireland, I couldn’t clean my lab glassware using water from the mains because there was more plastic in it than in the samples I was testing,” he says.

He is currently researching in Svalbard, and even in this remote archipelago, located roughly halfway between Norway and the North Pole, microplastics have been washed into what should be a pristine environment.

Ferreira has worked on his idea since he was just 16 when he was horrified by the plastics near his coastal home where his parents are boat-builders.

His invention uses magnetised food-grade oil that attaches to microplastics. The solution can then be pulled out of the water by magnets.

Fionn Ferreira: Removing microplastics from water

Alternative methods exist but are heavy on equipment and energy. It’s possible to evaporate water, leaving the microplastics behind, for example but that takes vast amounts of heat to convert the water into steam and further energy to cool the steam into water again.

Ferreira’s method requires no electricity and while his prototype is already perfect for contained areas such as houses, he says it is adaptable for any setting, from water outflows in manufacturing facilities to wastewater treatment plants to open rivers.

The European Patent Office believe him and have chosen Fionn as one of three finalists in the annual European Inventor Award taking place in July.

You might think water authorities would be banging his door down but that’s not the case.

Lack of regulation requiring the removal of microplastics is the problem, he says.

“Water companies seem to be quite hesitant.

“Companies will not test for things unless they are forced to because otherwise they will have to remove those things from the water.”

A draft new water directive for Europe tentatively proposes addressing the issue but Fionn wants to see his technology in use everywhere.

He has had some high-profile backing, notably the FootPrint Coalition, an initiative founded by actor Robert Downey Jr which grant-aids sustainable business ideas.

Now Ferreira is trying to raise $2m to get to get his invention market-ready.

Meanwhile, he is studying for his master’s degree at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands.

He said that as a chemistry student, he couldn’t find a course in Ireland with the right mix of science and sustainability.

“I wanted one that was around sustainability, not sending me to a pharmaceutical company.”

He is also writing a children’s book to encourage children to become inventors.

“Instead of teaching children what will make them a lot of money in the future, we need to teach them how to fall in love with the environment, how to get angry about what’s happening to it, and give them a toolset to solve some of those problems,” he says.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ferreira isn’t angry at the manufacturers of plastic.

“Plastic is a great material and it’s not something that we need to eliminate completely but instead we have to use it more wisely and also re-engineer how we make it.”

The plastics industry has enormous know-how and innovation, he says, and that should be harnessed to tackle the problem at source.

That won’t render his invention obsolete, however.

“We have so much plastic in the world, we will be dealing with this for hundreds if not thousands of years to come. That’s the sad truth of it.”

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