21-year-old Inventor Launches Prototype That May Help Oceans Clean Themselves of Plastic

This might be the technology that rids the ocean of plastic for good. Photo: The Ocean Cleanup

The Inertia

At 17, Boyan Slat had an ambitious goal: to help the world’s oceans remove 7-million tons of plastic from themselves. In short, his idea was to construct a fixed barrier in the oceans that would allow for currents to pass through naturally. The barrier would capture the plastic, and concentrate it toward the center of the barrier to be removed later for recycling. He later presented this idea at a local TedX event in Delft, The Netherlands – his hometown. That was in 2012.

Now 21, Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup Project, has overseen an in-depth proof of concept study and an $80 thousand crowdfunding campaign, has spent countless hours along with his team pursuing research and development, and survived significant criticism to produce the first ever large-scale prototype.

Deployed in the North Sea, 23 km (14.3 miles) off the coast of the Netherlands, the prototype is over 100 meters long, and will remain for data collecting purposes for one year.

The launch of the prototype is a major advancement in the testing of a technology that Slat is confident could ultimately be deployed at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of the Pacific Ocean where plastic exceeds plankton six to one, and remove the debris.

Beyond being close to home, there is significant benefit to deploying his first open-ocean prototype in the North Sea, namely how it fares in rough seas. According to the project’s website, “The Ocean Cleanup’s technology makes use of long floating barriers which act as an artificial coastline, passively catching and concentrating debris, powered by the ocean’s natural currents. Because the barriers are at the surface of the ocean, it will be subjected to the most extreme conditions, and hence it’s of paramount importance we test the barriers in those conditions.” Minor storms in the North Sea are more severe than the heaviest of storms in the Pacific Ocean. So if it can fare the the North Sea, the Pacific will be cake.

The goal of the Ocean Cleanup Project is to deploy the final iteration of the technology in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 2020. At 100km long, that version will be 1,000 times larger than the North Sea prototype. The Ocean Cleanup Project estimates that if all goes according to plan, it would take approximately 10 years for the technology to eliminate half of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That’s incredible.

A bird's eye view of what the 100km technology may eventually look like. Photo: <a href="http://www.theoceancleanup.com/">The Ocean Cleanup</a>

A bird’s eye view of what the 100km technology may eventually look like. Photo: The Ocean Cleanup

Slat and his team still have a long way to go, though. By 2017 The Ocean Cleanup intends to launch a pilot project, potentially on the island of Tsushima, Japan with plans of scaling the technology to several kilometers in length. That’s a far cry from the ultimate goal of a 100km system, but the Project argues this will be the optimum size to continue to gather data and on which to perform numerous field tests to ensure the final system’s feasibility and function.