Several months ago, we reported on Ocean Cleanup Project, an ambitious attempt to develop an autonomous device capable of cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. At that time, the first prototype device was being towed out to sea for testing.  Boyan Slat, the 24-year-old CEO of the company (and inventor of the original Ocean Cleanup Project) was hopeful. In an interview with Time Magazine, he said “I hope that this will be a turning point for the plastic pollution problem; […] for sixty years it has only gotten worse and worse. Now hopefully we’re turning the tide.”

The device, which consists of a 60- meter free floating boom designed to take advantage of natural wind and water currents to direct plastic into a storage and collection container, has had its critics. Some worried that the device, known as System 001, would harm wildlife. Others claimed it would be ineffective. The more idealistic believed the project would divert resources from efforts to control plastic pollution at the source.

Today, we’ll look at some of the challenges that have faced the prototype since its launch in September 2018.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Since launch, the prototype device has run into two major issues. The first is a lack of consistent plastic retention. As shown in this animation, the device is meant to work by being propelled through the water by the wind, overtaking floating plastic and funneling it into a central repository. Unfortunately, project engineers have found that the actual speed achieved by the device – approximately ten centimeters per second – is insufficient to effectively corral and trap plastics. The team is studying the device’s performance to come up with tweaks that will allow it to move faster without requiring a major redesign.

The most promising involves changing the shape of the U, which is held in a curve by two long cables, to make it more open. It is thought that this will increase the speed of the device as it is propelled by the wind. The materials to do this are already deployed on the ship sent to monitor the device performance.

The second challenge is that a long segment of the device broke free under the strain of constantly bending back and forth in the waves. As noted by Slat, the device is deployed about ten times further from land than the world’s most remote oil rigs. The solution to the material failure problem is more prosaic – the team intends to reinforce the structure with more material.

We’ll keep you posted as this exciting new project continues.