More than 250 metric tons of microplastic are esti­mated to be floating in the world’s oceans. And the cost to take a research vessel out to study those par­ti­cles and their dis­per­sion pat­terns can be astronomical.

To solve the high-​​cost issue, without sac­ri­ficing on data col­lec­tion, a North­eastern stu­dent cre­ated a sensor to gather and cat­e­go­rize microplastics.

Ethan Edson, S’15, pre­sented his “Man­taray” pro­to­type sensor at RISE:2015 this past April and earned the under­grad­uate award in the Engi­neering and Tech­nology cat­e­gory. He grad­u­ated in May with his bachelor’s degree in envi­ron­mental science.


A break down of the “Mantaray’s” dif­ferent parts. Cour­tesy of Edson’s RISE:2015 poster

As a first deploy­ment this summer, Edson said he hopes to use the sensor to col­lect microplas­tics in Boston Harbor.

His inspi­ra­tion for the project came while par­tic­i­pating in the SEA Semester pro­gram in Woods Hole, Mass­a­chu­setts, two years ago, when Edson was studying bac­teria growth on microplas­tics that he col­lected by drag­ging a net behind a boat. He saw an oppor­tu­nity to stream­line the process and elim­i­nate the need for man­power or a research vessel.

It just seemed like there could be a better way to have a sensor that could col­lect microplas­tics,” Edson said.

Microplas­tics are defined as par­ti­cles that are smaller than five mil­lime­ters. Edson explained on his RISE poster that microplas­tics are becoming inva­sive in marine ecosys­tems and are harmful to marine species. Iden­ti­fying global dis­persal pat­terns is dif­fi­cult because of diverse con­cen­tra­tions across the world’s oceans.

The “Man­taray” fea­tures a flow-​​through system to pump sea sur­face water through itself. An optical sensor iden­ti­fies microplas­tics within the water and stores them in one of 28 fil­ters. The device would also include a GPS system to track where in the ocean the microplas­tics are col­lected, as well as a water tem­per­a­ture sensor and a salinity sensor.

RISE:2015 Awards Ceremony

Edson, center, is flanked by Pres­i­dent Aoun, right, and Provost and Vice Pres­i­dent for Aca­d­emic Affairs Stephen Director, left, at the RISE:2015 award cer­e­mony in April. Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

Fol­lowing RISE, Edson con­tinued working on the appa­ratus that would hold the sensor when it’s in water. One of the key com­po­nents of the appa­ratus will be a solar panel on top so the sensor’s bat­teries can stay charged.

The biggest issue with oceano­graphic instru­ments is bat­tery power,” Edson explained. “Having a solar panel is pretty cru­cial and can make the deploy­ment last longer.”

In order to elim­i­nate the need for a research vessel, Edson said he would like to explore the pos­si­bility of attaching the “Man­taray” to other ships that already travel through the ocean every day. “If people are going through the ocean anyway and don’t mind strap­ping some­thing to their boat, it might be an easy way to col­lect data,” he said.

Funding for this project came from a Provost’s Under­grad­uate Research and Cre­ative Endeavors Award, and Edson did most of the work at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass­a­chu­setts, under the direc­tion of pro­fessor Mark Pat­terson, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Engi­neering.

Edson has a patent pending on the sensor through Northeastern’s Center for Research Inno­va­tion.