Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Friday, July 25, 2014
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Ocean Cleanup Project Crowdsources for the Environment 

With historic periods bearing names like “Bronze Age,” or “Iron Age,” one aerospace engineering student believes we have created what could become known as “the Plastic Age.” After all, it’s been at the heart of countless technological innovations that define the way we work and live every day. But plastic pollution also accounts for one of the world’s most destructive forces on our own environment, particularly when it comes to our oceans.

Nowhere is this more evident than five giant trash gyres (vortices) circulating in the largest open areas of our oceans, which is why Boyan Slat, a 19-year-old engineering student at the Delft University of Technology has designed a project that could clean them up.

The effort, called the Ocean Cleanup Project, has been estimated to remove 7.25 million tons of plastic from these gyres in just five years, but before Slat can move forward, he’s asked the environmental and engineering communities to join together to test the feasibility of the project and hopefully boost it into action.

Already, the millions of tons of plastic in the ocean cost millions of dollars annually, on top of killing hundreds of thousands of aquatic animals,helping invasive algae to grow out of hand, and disturbing the food chain by transporting pollutants such as PCB and DDT.

Given the sheer magnitude of the plastic in the oceans, one might be quick to assume that a cleanup project with such ambitious aims must be aggressive in order to hunt down so many tiny, broken-down polymer particles, but what’s unique about Slat’s vision is this: rather than skimming the gyres, expending energy and likely putting pollutants back into the environment, his cleanup platforms are stationary, require no energy, and the recycling of the gathered plastic alone would pay for the cost of execution.

Slat says this is possible by anchoring floating filtration platforms to the ocean floor in a single spot of the rotating gyre. This way the oceans’ currents will do the work of gathering the plastic, with the help of massive floating booms attached to the platform.

By using booms rather than nets, only small particles of a specific density will be gathered, preserving any wildlife that may pass by. And to avoid interaction with any ships that may try to pass by, the cleaning area would be marked as an “Area to be Avoided,” thus preventing a ship from accidentally trying to sail over the boom.

Slat says that the plastic then collected in the stationary, autonomous platforms will then be recycled. “According to current estimations—due to the plan’s unprecedented efficiency—recycling benefits would significantly outweigh the costs of executing the project,” Slat explains on his website.

Although the design’s efficacy looks promising thus far, Slat hopes to prove the project’s feasibility by the end of the year, which requires experts to submit design concepts for the floating booms, and provide feedback on these designs as well as those for the autonomous filtering platforms.

Hoping to lend a hand is SolidWorks, who is sponsoring a contest for the boom designs, with a grand prize including admission to SolidWorks World 2014, a license of SolidWorks 2014 Premium, and seven nights in Delft. Contest rules can be found on the competition’s website, with the deadline set for November 15 and the winner to be announced at SolidWorks World 2014.

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