STEAM In History: Fionn Ferreira

Our planet may be closer to a cleaner, greener future thanks to one young inventor's passion for protecting the environment. Fionn Ferreira, then 18, presented his winning microplastic filtration discovery at Google international headquarters. Today, he is an entrepreneur hoping to turn his once-homemade device into a global water treatment solution.

Who is Fionn Ferreira?

Grand Prize winner of the 2019 Google Science Fair, Forbes 30 Under 30 Listee, and founder and CEO of his own company, Fionn & Co., Fionn Ferreira’s mission to protect the environment has only just begun.

Like many adventurous teenagers, Fionn Ferreira enjoyed kayaking. Paddling along with his dog, India, he noticed something — The seashore of his hometown in West Cork, Ireland, was littered with plastic debris. Ferreira knew he could do something to help.


He discovered microplastics all along the shoreline. Microplastics are minuscule fragments of plastic deposited into the environment when plastic waste breaks down. Using his knowledge of chemistry, Ferreira realized that these plastic particles are nonpolar and are attracted to other nonpolar materials. Experimentation revealed that light vegetable oil did the trick, but adding excess oil to the environment would not be beneficial. He needed to continue his research.

A few years later, Fereira had an idea. Thanks to a high school science experiment, he realized mixing light vegetable oil and magnetite powder in polluted water would form a ferrofluid. He could then use a magnet to attract and remove the microplastics. It worked!

Ferreira’s childhood bedroom soon became his science lab. Using a homemade visible-light spectrometer, he measured density separation to determine the volume of microplastic in his test solutions before and after treatment (Fleming, 2020). He also built his own microscope, capturing images of water samples before and after using his ferrofluid concoction. These tools allowed Ferreira to showcase the efficacy of his invention and share his results with the greater scientific community.

Should We Be Concerned About Microplastics?

Though many do their best to recycle, most plastic stays in landfills for the next 1,000 years! As plastic continuously breaks down, new physical and chemical properties emerge, potentially adding new toxins that may negatively affect organisms (UN Environment Programme, 2021).

Microplastics are often found in soil, oceans and even tap water. As we consume crops and animals, we are essentially ingesting the microplastics within them. Ferreira further explained this phenomenon of bioaccumulation in an interview with Lampoon Magazine:

“If a fish eats a piece of plastic, and a larger fish eats that fish, the plastic will carry through the food chain. If we eat the fish, the plastic will enter into our body too and will accumulate. The other is that the chemicals put into plastic are worrying. Often there are plasticizers such as Bisphenol A, also called BPA, or colorants, which could be heavy metals. Biofilms are kinds of bacteria that can grow in the plastic, and can be harmful. These biofilms, as well as the Bisphenol A and colorants always had a link to cancer mutations. Recent studies suggest that plastics, if small enough, can cross the blood brain barrier. And we don’t know what happens there” (Giachero, 2022).

Ferreira’s invention has the potential to help decrease the number of microplastics harming us and our environment. What started as an at-home project has now become both a company as well as a major startup backed by Robert Downey Jr's Footprint Coalition. Hopefully, we’ll see Ferreira’s device used to remove microplastics from water on a global scale someday soon.

Share Your Passions with Podcasting

Interested in learning more about Fionn Ferreira? A quick search will lead you to his many interviews, television appearances, even his first book! That’s because he believes combating environmental issues and inspiring others to invent are both incredibly important. His startup, Glic, hopes to provide a platform for young inventors, scientists, and innovators to communicate and obtain the tools they need to build their ideas into reality.

Embrace Ferreira's mission by sharing his story and motivating learners to pursue their passions! Grab these free downloads and inspire your learners to share their passions with the world.

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Author: Jessica Ventre

An experienced elementary educator and science instructional coach, Jessica’s passion for STEM instruction and student-led learning is always at the forefront of her lessons and professional development workshops.



References:

Fionn Ferreira - National geographic society. Explorers - National Geographic Society. (n.d.). Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://explorer-directory.nationalgeographic.org/fionn-ferreira

Fionn Ferreira. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.fionnferreira.com/

Fleming, S. (2020). Meet the teen science star using magnetic liquid to remove microplastics from water. World Economic Forum. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/ocean-plastic-pollution-magnetic-liquid-irish-scientist/

Giachero, J. (2022, June 27). Fionn Ferreira's magnet-based approach for removing microplastics from water. Lampoon Magazine. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.lampoonmagazine.com/article/2022/06/26/fionn-ferreira-microplastics/

PlasticSoupFound. (2019, October 11). Fionn Ferreira on his winning project at the 2019 google science fair | plastic health summit 2019. YouTube. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akCjg2s7xrs

UN Environment Programme. (2021, December 22). Plastic planet: How tiny plastic particles are polluting our soil. UNEP. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/plastic-planet-how-tiny-plastic-particles-are-polluting-our-soil#:~:text=Toxic%20effects&text=Chlorinated%20plastic%20can%20release%20harmful,species%20that%20drink%20the%20water.

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