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12-year-old genius builds robot that can identify microplastics on the ocean floor

Anna Du, a seventh grader from Massachusetts, has devised a remote-operated vehicle that moves through water and identifies microplastics at the bottom of the ocean.

Plastic presents a significant problem for the world’s marine ecosystems. It shreds into tiny pieces that quickly invade the ocean’s food chain, exposing marine life to toxic substances like polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), an organic chlorine compound that has been found to be a deadly carcinogen.

Seeing that The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report says that at the current rate of pollution, “by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans”, it’s safe to say that something needs to be done as soon as possible.

A study undertaken in 2015 found that between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste entered the ocean in 2010 alone. Yep, really. The problem is colossal.

And to make matters worse, seeing that the majority of it settles on the bottom of the ocean, cleaning up the plastic is extremely difficult.

Enter Anna Du. The 12-year-old genius’ invention directly tackles this problem. She has created a remote-operated vehicle capable of roaming the ocean floor and identifying microplastics.

The inspirational seventh-grade student accumulated her engineering knowledge from maker labs at local libraries, and countless hours of Youtube videos.

Du has always had an interest in science and technology —  her parents have been taking her to events and workshops at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since she was five years old.

The budding engineer built her robot out of PVC pipes, fishing weights and foam pool floats. While the parts may sound simple, the robot is stacked with impressive features.

It utilises a smart infrared-based detection system to spot the plastic waste. Two different wave-lengths of infrared light make the plastic stand out in the dark depths of the ocean, as well as enable the machine to recognise the plastic amidst sand and other marine life.

Anna genius 12-year-old

Anna and her prototype / Image Credit: Anna Du

Casey Machao, an engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told The Smithsonian:

“She [Anna] has an impressive basic kind of engineering instinct to break down a problem like this and then go after it.”

“She was able to follow that up with the technical work, construction and design to make a working prototype, which is very cool. It sounds simple, but it’s a level of thinking that’s really impressive.”

Machao is one of the engineers working on the Nereid Under Ice, an ROV aimed at exploring, mapping and gathering data in polar regions. It was one of the robots that inspired Du’s prototype.

Du’s ROV was one of the 30 finalists in this year’s Broadcom Masters competition, considered one of the most prestigious STEM events for middle school students in the world.

The event was held in Washington, D.C. last week. A panel of distinguished scientists and engineers judged the finalists. While Du impressed the judges, the coveted US$25,000 first-prize went to 14-year-old Georgia Hutchinson who designed aData-Driven Dual Axis Solar Tracker.

“I know I want to be an engineer because I like building things to help solve world problems,” Du told the Smithsonian. “I’m not sure what kind of engineer I want to be yet.”

I’m not sure what kind of engineer she’ll be either, but I know she’ll be a great one.

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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