Pollutant capture technology wins youth water prize

Naomi Park receives the 2023 SJWP from Princess Victoria of Sweden

Research for a technology that has the potential to remove three pollutants from the world’s oceans has won the prestigious Stockholm Junior Water Prize 2023.

The technology, called the multifunctional remedial framework (MF-RF), seeks to remove carbon dioxide and soluble oil from oceans through a device made from a by-product of Styrofoam – another persistent pollutant.

The ocean absorbs nearly a third of airborne carbon dioxide emissions and it is estimated that 1.3 million gallons of crude oil is spilt into oceans every year. Both pollutants continue to detrimentally affect marine biodiversity, aquatic life, and human health.

In her research, Park has developed a method to simultaneously remove these pollutants with the help of the third pollutant - Styrofoam. The 17-year-old from Connecticut, US, was presented the award by Princess Victoria of Sweden, official patron of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP), during an award ceremony at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) World Water Week.

The jury said, “Naomi Park is taking Styrofoam, a troublesome waste product, and using it to help solve several of the most pressing pollutants we face in the modern world. By using Styrofoam and creating a ‘sponge’ that absorbs both carbon dioxide and soluble oil from the ocean she was able to build a model and test it in multiple conditions, even simulating ocean waves, with impressive results.”

The SJWP is an international competition established in partnership with technology company Xylem in 1997. It is for students between the ages of 15 and 20 to present solutions to global water challenges and 31 entrants made the shortlist from countries including Benin, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Ecuador, and Japan.

Karin Gardes, acting executive director of SIWI said, “The Stockholm Junior Water Prize is a tribute to an entire generation of motivated young people, eager to tackle the greatest challenges of our time. Their passion, ingenuity, and determination to be part of a better future, is truly inspiring. It is also a stark reminder that must all do our part, and we must do it now.”

In an interview with Make Water Famous, Park details her award-winning research and technology and her ambitions for the future:

What motivated you to apply for the Stockholm Junior Water Prize?

I’m in a research programme at my high school in Greenwich, Connecticut, and every year I attend the state science fair. It was here that I found out about the Stockholm Junior Water Prize. Once I was nominated to represent Connecticut, I competed at the national fair against the 50 other states to come to Stockholm and be a US finalist for the SJWP.

What motivated me is my passion for aquatic environments since I was 14. With this, a lot of my research since then had been focused on the environmental sciences so I thought I should give the SJWP a shot. It seemed like an amazing opportunity, and I didn’t know of any other competition that focused only on water projects.

Your winning research is the multifunctional remedial framework (MF-RF) and the technology you created from that. Can you explain how it works and what it can be used for?

The MFRF focuses on three specific pollutants that are detrimental to aquatic life but there are not many solutions to solve them.

The first pollutant is carbon dioxide (CO2). The concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere is increasing at unprecedented rates, as a result, our oceans are acidifying which is harmful to coral reefs and shelled marine life but is not very well-researched.

The second is oil spills. Specifically, the soluble oil that runs off beneath the water line and spreads within the ocean. Current remediation methods, such as oil booms, only capture surface-level oil pollutants. Again, there is not a lot of research available into the harmful impacts of soluble oil.

The third pollutant is Styrofoam waste. The main component of Styrofoam is polystyrene foam which is one of the hardest materials to recycle and subsequently, it often ends up in our oceans.

I addressed these three pollutants as I came across a technology called hypercross-linked polymers (HCPs) which is a powered material extracted directly from Styrofoam. HCPs have a high porosity, which means they can hold onto moisture, as well as having a high surface area for attracting pollutants.

HCPs have been used in scientific experiments to remove harmful pollutants, but the major shortcoming is in implementation as HCPs are in powdered form and it isn’t feasible to throw this power into the ocean and hope for the best.

I thought if I could find a way to create a stable system where the HCPs could remain concentrated without dissipating in water, I could take this existing technology out of the lab and hopefully make an impact.

How did you create a stable system for the HCPs to be useful?

There are three main components to the technological device I created.

The base is effectively a sponge called melamine foam. It has been used a lot in the past because it is a cheap and plentiful resource and is very robust in nature, able to withstand harsh environmental conditions such as wind and ocean waves.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is the glue element sticking the HCP powder to the foam which was secured by a PTFE spray and then ‘curing’ the foam in an oven to secure the HCPs. The last component is the HCPs themselves for pollutant capture and removal.

To put things into perspective, in terms of experimentation and implementation, I did my testing in a lab where I created box-like structures for this stable system.

The SJWP finalists from 31 countries

How could this MF-RF technology be implemented outside the lab?

If we’re thinking about real-life implementation, where this technology could be used the most would be as an add-on to existing oil booms that capture the visible surface-level oil. I see my MF-RF technology as a complement to this existing technology, being attached around the outside but suspended under the surface of the water line to capture the soluble oil.

What about CO2 capture?

A question the judging panel asked was whether this technology would even be useful for CO2 capture due to the sheer size of the world's oceans. However, during my research, I came across areas referred to as ‘ocean acidification hotspots’ which are localised regions that have a lot of shell marine life and coral reefs suffering the most determent because of ocean acidification.

These localised areas are where the MF-RF technology would be most beneficial to implement on a smaller scale.

Did you come up against any significant challenges during the formation of your research for the MF-RF and the creation of the technology?

Finding the best way to test the technology was something I really struggled with. I had to find a way of testing the technology in a laboratory environment while also simulating and mimicking the real ocean environment as much as possible to get the best results.

I ended up engineering the box-like structures where I used seawater, and something called an orbital shaker to mimic ocean waves. Getting to that point was the hardest challenge.

Had you anticipated what the results would be before you started testing?

In theory, I already knew it should work because I had done all the primary research beforehand, but you never really know what is going to happen.

Luckily the results were favourable and showed promising results. I have had so much fun developing the research to this point and in my final year of high school I want to scale up the testing by building bigger testing boxes and expanding the breadth of results.

What has been the highlight of the SJWP competition?

Because of this project, I have been able to meet people from all over the world. Being able to see so many different countries represented by people that have the same interests as me, outside the research programme at my high school, has been such a highlight and motivator for me.