12-year-old engineer invents device to combat ocean microplastic pollution

Saving the planet's oceans from plastic pollution isn't on the agenda of a typical 12-year-old. However, sixth-grade inventor Anna Du is working to achieve just that.

The Andover, Massachusetts, resident was recently selected, along with nine other middle-school inventors, as a finalist in the 2018 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

The challenge invites 10 innovators in grades five through eight to submit a short video outlining a unique solution to an everyday problem for the chance to win $25,000 as well as mentorship from a distinguished 3M scientist.

Sixth-grade inventor
Sixth-grade inventor

(Photo/Anna Du)

Du created an underwater remotely operated vehicle that uses infrared light to detect, photograph and help remove microplastics from marine environments without harming living creatures.

"Plastics are already a huge problem, and then there are microplastics," Du told AccuWeather. "When fish eat it, they get a toxin called bisphenol A inside their bodies, and even if they poop the plastics out, they still keep the toxin inside of them."

The health of humans also faces detrimental impacts from consuming plastic-contaminated fish.

Anna chose to use infrared in her remotely operated vehicle because it can help scientists distinguish microplastics from other nonhazardous materials underwater without having to send samples to a lab.

"I first decided I wanted to do an ocean-related project when I found out that plastics in the ocean were a big problem; I went to the beach at Boston Harbor and I saw plastics everywhere," Du said.

"I wanted to do something to help that problem, so I decided to research it a little more and find ways I could try to solve it," she added.

Du said that a unique feature of her project is the mathematical algorithm she utilizes to identify the microplastics.

"What I've been doing is taking pictures of plastics underwater," she said. "After I found out that selectively picking spots out of the picture was really time-consuming, I decided to make an algorithm that could identify what is plastic and what isn't."

6th grade inventor
6th grade inventor

Anna Du's remotely operated vehicle uses an infrared system to detect and take pictures of plastics underwater. (Photo/Anna Du)

Her device currently extends 25 feet into the water, but in the future, Du hopes to extend the tether connecting the device and her control box to between 50 and 100 feet.

Eventually, the aspiring environmental engineer hopes to work with both governments and corporations to remove microplastics from the oceans safely and efficiently.

"I'm extremely impressed by her innovation and initiative to help solve the problem of plastics in the ocean, especially the issue of microplastics," said children's environmental health scientist Dr. Luz Claudio.

"We know that exposure to chemicals in plastics can affect human health, especially in children, and I'm glad to see that children can come up with solutions to the problems that we have created," Claudio said.

Du will work to develop her invention further during the summer with the aid of her mentor, Advanced Research Specialist Dr. Ann Fornof. In October, Du and other participants will meet for the final competition of the 2018 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge in St. Paul, Minnesota.