With environmental engineering against plastic in the ocean

16/06/2021 | myRobotcenter
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We all know that plastics are a big problem in our environment. The latest when we are again at the sea and notice how many plastic particles pollute the sand. And not only the sea is affected, because meanwhile microplastic can be detected almost everywhere, even on Mount Everest and in our drinking water!

The problem is called microplastics

Since the invention of plastic in the last century, its consumption and longevity have posed a major problem for mankind. According to the German Federal Environment Agency, there is an average of 13,000 plastic waste items per square kilometer of the ocean surface. We are virtually littering our planet with plastic waste. The plastic pieces continue to break apart into microscopic particles - known as microplastics. According to a 2016 study, plastic particles can even be found at depths of 8000 meters as "leftover" plastic waste in the ocean. This is worrying, because in the depths of the ocean live creatures that feed on sediments. However, the sediments are polluted with microplastic particles. The microorganisms from the deep sea are at the bottom of the food chain and, in turn, serve as food for other marine animals. And at the end of the food chain, there are we


Less plastic in the ocean is only one part of the solution

In addition to the immense amount of plastic in the ocean, the longevity of the plastic particles is a major problem. Although plastic decomposes with the help of sunlight to CO2 and hydrogen, this happens very slowly, and it takes many, many years for plastic to degrade. Until the plastic has completely decomposed, it continues to survive in the form of microplastics. This also means that "only" reducing the amount of plastic in the ocean is unfortunately not enough, because once broken down into nearly invisible microplastic, the particles can hardly be removed. Especially not at a depth of 8000 m. 


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Environmental engineering: When technology can become a part of the solution
The nearly impossible scenario of removing invisible particles at 8.000 meters below sea level means, that, in addition to avoiding microplastics, a technical solution must be found. And this is where the field of environmental engineering comes into the picture. The goal of environmental engineering is to contribute to environmental protection with technical and technological processes and, if possible, to reverse existing damage to ecosystems. 
 
And so, scientists and engineers at the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague are currently researching a way of using robots to combat microplastics. 

Using robots against microplastics
The researchers are pursuing the idea of using tiny robots to accelerate the natural decomposition of plastic using photocatalysis. But how exactly is that working?
 
The microrobots are about the size of a blood cell and have a special type of propulsion. When they catch the sunlight, they begin to move forward and can thus swim through the water by themselves. According to the research team, they move at a speed of several millimeters per second. They also carry the photocatalytic material bismuth vanadate and magnetic iron oxide. On their way through the water, they catch the synthetic polymers (microplastic) as they swim past. By docking with the plastic particle, they accelerate the process of photocatalysis using sunlight irradiation. This is particularly efficient for polylactic acid and polycaprolactone plastics. The result: the microplastic decomposes much faster. Initial successes have been achieved in closed water systems and the first companies (wastewater treatment plants) have already announced their interest. 

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We remain excited and continue to follow the project.

16/06/2021 | myRobotcenter
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