Fionn Ferreira, an inventor specializing in water treatment, told Newsweek that he’s driven by a love for two things.
“One of them is inventing, building things….The other thing is [being] in the wilderness and kayaking and sailing, but while I was out kayaking and sailing, I saw so much plastic washing up on the shore,” Ferreira said in a July interview. “That’s when I really decided that I had to do something about it. So first, I just started collecting plastic like we all do, but then I started realizing that plastics are breaking into smaller and smaller pieces.”
The 22-year-old Ferreira, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, won the 2019 Google Science Fair for an invention that uses magnetized oil to remove microplastic particles from water. His device—called MPEC, which stands for “microplastic environmental cleaning”—achieves high extraction rates, and Ferreira says it is environmentally safe.
It works by utilizing magnetized oil, or ferrofluid, to attract microplastic particles in water. The ferrofluid can then be magnetically lifted out of the water, bringing the microplastics with it. This idea came to Ferreira when he was 16 years old, walking on the seashore in his native Ireland and saw oil spill residue with plastics stuck to it.
“I think the biggest impact, the biggest thing, that caused me to want to make a difference was, in fact, just seeing an environment that I loved, a place that I loved, being impacted by pollution, like plastic pollution on a big scale,” he said. “I saw animals washing up dead filled with plastic. I saw so much plastic on the seashore. I saw animals being tangled up.”
His startup company, Fionn & Co., aims for his invention to become a standard for microplastic removal in water treatment worldwide. Actor Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition, which invests in companies focused on sustainability, has provided help to Ferreira.
“We’ve had numerous calls with Robert himself, who has input—he’s like, ‘We should put this screw here and a baffle plate there,’ which is kind of fun,” Ferreira said. “But also, the FootPrint Coalition has put us in contact with many other scientists in this space and really been able to elevate our voice onto international tables and generate funding through grants, so it’s a really wonderful collaboration.”
Ferriera said the toughest obstacle on his journey has been that his young age would sometimes stop others from realizing the value of his invention or the research that went into creating it.
“I was a 16-year-old from this village in the middle of nowhere in Ireland, and nobody took me seriously. I had done about 4,000 tests on my device—it worked,” Ferreira explained. “It removes microplastics from water, but trying to bring that to light, and trying to get people to give me grant money, even something small, to just test this further, or to take my idea seriously and allow me to test or use their lab equipment was almost impossible.”
Ferriera said that support for young ventures, in general, is needed at a greater level. To that end, he encouraged individuals to donate to Green Journey Coalition, his nonprofit that works to develop the necessary technology to fight plastic pollution in pursuit of cleaner water, and to follow his Instagram, Twitter and TikTok and to share his story with others.
In 2021, Ferriera was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and was recognized as a National Geographic Young Explorer. He has been a contributor to every World Economic Forum since 2020.
Ferriera’s upbringing in the wilds of Ireland looms large over the development of MPEC. He credits his background with instilling a DIY ethic that drove him to tackle the mental and physical work needed for industrial-scale creativity.
“I think what shaped me quite significantly was just that we lived so far away from any stores or any materials—and also that my parents were both builders—anything I wanted, I could just build myself. If we needed a new garden tool, we would make it in the workshop, or if something broke, we would repair it,” he said. “As a result, I thought well, yeah, that’s what really gave me the idea that if we’ve got a problem like microplastics in the ocean, there’s no problem too big for us to just try and build something to solve it.”