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SEA Currents: SSV Corwith Cramer

January 04, 2021

SEA Semester Students to Beta Test New Microplastics Technology

Doug Karlson, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

SEA Semester

Above: Ocean Diagnostics microplastics depth sampler; Below: Imaging system.

Later this year, SEA Semester students will begin beta testing new advanced technology to measure microplastics in the ocean, thanks to a partnership with an innovative company co-founded by a SEA Semester alumnus.

The company is Ocean Diagnostics, and the SEA Semester alumnus is chief engineering officer Ethan Edson, C-247. Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Ocean Diagnostics develops technologies to collect and analyze microplastics in the ocean.

In partnership with Schmidt Marine Technology Partners, the company has donated a microplastics depth sampler and imaging system to SEA Semester for use on upcoming cruises, beginning this spring with the Marine Biodiversity and Conservation program aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Lack of data on the long-term effects of ocean plastic pollution has hampered regulation, explained Edson. But the research needed to influence policy is costly and generally difficult to carry out. Edson hopes to change that.  Technology developed by Ocean Diagnostics is designed to be easily deployed from small boats, even kayaks, to allow scientists and citizens to collect robust in situ samples while also using a smart phone imaging system to reduce sample processing time. 

“The innovative technologies that we have developed are designed to increase accessibility, so that researchers can deploy our systems from anywhere,” said Edson. “Our goal is to lower the barriers for data collection to allow scientists and policy makers to make informed decisions to protect the oceans, and to better understand the long-term effects of microplastics on ecosystems, food chains and human health.”

Edson has long been interested in ocean plastics research. Following his SEA Semester, he volunteered with SEA Senior Research Assistant Jessica Donohue to conduct experiments measuring the vertical rising velocity of buoyant plastics. 

The new systems from Ocean Diagnostics will enhance students’ microplastic research projects, says SEA Research Professor of Oceanography Kara Lavender Law, who serves on Ocean Diagnostics’ scientific advisory board.

“We will collect microplastics in a variety of size classes from a variety of depths using the profiler, and we will collect size information on individual particles using the imaging system. This will allow us to collect a broader swath of microplastics samples, enhancing our long-term dataset collected at the sea surface using plankton (neuston) nets,” Law explained.

“We will be able to compare microplastics concentrations at various depths, and continue to build upon our library of particle characteristics initiated by Jessica Donohue and contributed to by many summer interns and Falmouth Academy science fair students in the shore plastics lab at SEA.”

Other collaborators include Schmidt Marine Technology Partners and Northeastern University.

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