By Leong Qi Tyng – Contributing Writer
“We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth,” said Alan Jamieson, lead author of the study on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) recently discovered in the Mariana Trench.
It is a known fact that humans have been polluting the Earth for a long time.
Now, a new study in Nature Ecology and Evolution has identified ‘extraordinary’ levels of pollutants near the bottom of the deepest trench in the world, the Mariana Trench; used previously in engine lubricant and flame retardant materials from the 1930s to the 1970s. The pollutants are known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and, as the name suggests, they do not break down in the environment. Due to poorly planned landfills and gravity, these chemicals have made their way into the ocean, poisoning all forms of sea life and human beings.
We have seen videos of turtles getting stuck and deformed in discarded beer can rings; whales and sea turtles caught in fishing nets and dying corals; a video showed a sea turtle being operated on because it ate nearly 1000 coins. Above sea level, bees are dying and air pollution is getting worse. All these atrocities beg the question: are we going to do anything about it?
The earliest environmentally-friendly invention I could recall were the edible beer can rings made from wheat and barley leftover from making beer, instead of plastics, but I don’t think I’ve seen them in the market. Nevertheless, researchers and scientists have been working on solutions to try and help prolong the health of our environment, and here are just a few of them. I hope they will be available to use soon.
Scientists at the Argonne National Lab have developed a reusable sponge that can absorb oil and petroleum-based products from water. It’s made of polyurethane or polyimide plastics and coated with silane molecules. At the moment, the sponges are sewn into mesh bags to form a square pad measuring around 6 square metres: a single panel of the sponge could absorb up to 1.4 gallons of oil. The absorbed oil can be reused, and the lab believes the invention could clean up oil spills within five years.
A 17-year old teenager, Paige Brown, from Bangor, Maine won the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search for inventing a low-cost solution to clean polluted streams. Her invention only requires dollar-store hair clips, a block of foam, and seaweed (7:26 in the video). Paige’s invention targets eutrophication, where a nutrient, usually phosphorus, seeps into decaying organic matter such as leaves and causes an algae boom. Her invention removes this excess phosphorus from the water, saving fishes and plant life; and this nutrient can later be planted in the ground to act as a slow-release capsule for crops that need it as fertilizer.
This is not an invention per se, but inventive nonetheless. Overfishing and pollution has driven away fishes from shores in the Philippines, so a local fishing community has started fishing for old nets to be recycled and made into raw nylon. The fishing nets are collected and sent to Europe to be broken down into this material, for carpets, and this not only provides a cheap source of nylon for the carpet-makers but a source of income for the local Filipino community.
In 2016, the Great Barrier Reef went through mass bleaching, killing two-thirds of all coral in the northern third of the reef, and scientists predict the whole reef could be dead within 20 years if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced. Luckily, Dr. David Vaughan, programme manager of Mote Tropical Research Center, accidentally discovered that broken corals could be grown again and then planted back into the oceans, and his team discovered the reefs grew four times faster in the nursery and a survival rate of 95% once planted in the wild.
MIT’s Graviky Lab, co-headed by Anirudh Sharma, has produced a device that collects carbon soot from car exhausts and boats. The collected soot is processed into high-quality black ink for art, named Air-Ink; and has been used to make art supplies such as markers and paints. According to Graviky Lab, 45 minutes of exhaust creates 1 fluid oz of ink. You can support their Kickstarter campaign here, and see examples of these Air-Ink art pieces in the video.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has wiped out an estimated 10 million beehives over the past six years, with speculations pointing towards pesticides, disease-bearing parasites, and poor nutrition. However, a study published in PLOS ONE, by the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture, identified a toxic brew of pesticides and fungicides in pollen that bees collected to feed their hives. Bees that ate the contaminated pollen were three times more likely to be infected by the parasite, Nosema ceranae, in turn killing them.
In response to the alarming rates of bees dying, a team of Japanese researchers succeeded in using a pocket-sized drone to pollinate a flower. Horsehair bristles were coated with a special gel that collected pollen from flowers attached to a remote-controlled drone. The project is still in its early stages, but seems promising.
In another effort to help the bees, MIT’s Mediated Matter Group created the Synthetic Apiary; both a research facility and a place for bees to rebuild their hive, albeit in an artificial environment. The humidity and light levels in the apiary are adjusted to mimic the spring weather in May, which has optimal conditions for bees to thrive and flourish. Traditional apiaries allow bees to fly freely, but MIT’s apiary is completely sealed to keep the bees in protected captivity, with the bees provided synthetic pollen and sugared water to mimic nectar.