Skimming the Ocean

Posted by Science Explored on February 14, 2014

Concerns about the health of the world’s oceans have been growing for some time.  Recently, Starfish Wasting Disease has reemerged off the Pacific American coast, claiming millions of echinoderms.  Meanwhile, fishermen across the world have been reporting lower yields and higher mercury levels in their catches.  Perhaps most disturbing once flourishing marine ecosystems are being turned into barren wastelands in spots across the globe.  Given that oceans are so vast, we often think of our impact on them is minimal.  Most think cleaning the oceans up is not a pressing need and, even if we did clean them up, it would be an undertaking too large for any one country.  Boyan Slat, a 19-year-old student currently attending Delft University of Technology, has presented a possible solution that may address part of the problem and even turn around a profit.

Ocean Skimmer
Above:  an artist's rendition of what Slat's floating, self-powered plastic collection nodes could look like.  The booms extend to either side and would connect with other processing nodes.

Slat’s plan focuses on the billions of tons of plastic waste roaming the ocean currents.  One of the largest concentrations of this trash is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”  This, however, is somewhat of a misnomer as the plastic garbage patches that exist in all Earth’s oceans are not really clumps but rather huge regions often millions of square kilometers that are saturated with small particulates.  As an avid scuba diver, Slat has always loved the sea and has firsthand experience in just how prolific plastic contamination in the ocean is. Some of these plastics wash up on shores and ruin tourism as they traverse the ocean’s gyres and currents.  The bigger concern is most of it stays at sea, and even the smallest particles are responsible for the deaths of birds, fish, and other aquatic animals.  As waves the churn, they continuously crush the plastic into smaller bits. It would take thousands of years for nature to "deal" with the problem adequately – time the world's ecosystems and fishing industries cannot afford to waste.  These small particles leach PCB and DDT, two toxic chemicals into the surrounding waters, which directly impact human health via the marine life we eat. 

Slat’s idea relies on a system of floating stations with interconnected booms (floating beams) that skim the surface of the oceans.  The booms are small enough to allow larger ocean dwellers to travel under them while capturing plastic bits floating about the ocean.  Slat envisions that the boom arrays would slowly draw plastics into a solar or tidal-powered processing node that would mechanically separate the plastic from the sea water.  The plastic would then be stored at the node until a support ship could come collect it and sell it for use in recycled plastic products (a profit of about 500 million dollars per year).  The Holland-native has already proven this technique is successful on a small scale.  If his plan succeeds, he believes the world’s oceans can be “cleaned up” in about five years. This would not only revitalize the ocean’s health but also support all industries based around the ocean.  Say goodbye to the millions of dollars in ship repairs each year thanks to removal of floating plastic, cleaner seafood, and a healthier world for all of us to enjoy.