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News Hudson expedition trials new methods to detect plastic pollution

A team of scientists are setting sail on the Hudson river to map microplastic pollution using University patented technologies. 

Dr Claire Gwinnett, right, with members of the Microplastics Research Group on the yacht
Image: Dr Claire Gwinnett, right, with members of the Microplastics Research Group on the yacht

“It’s incredibly important that we educate the public and find new ways that we can all work together to tackle plastic pollution. We’re so excited to be working with the Rozalia Project on this ground-breaking research!”

Claire Gwinnett, Associate Professor in Forensic and Crime Science

A team of scientists from Staffordshire University are setting sail on an expedition along one of America’s most notable rivers to map microplastic pollution using Staffordshire University patented technologies. 

A joint venture with the Rozalia Project, the researchers will create a 4D heat map of microplastics in the air as well as in the water and banks of the Hudson river.

Travelling on board the famous yacht the American Promise, the project team, led by Staffordshire University’s microplastics expert Dr Claire Gwinnett and Rozalia Project’s Founder and National Geographic Explorer Rachael Miller, will be using a multidisciplinary approach to research microplastic sources in the Hudson river. 

Bringing together forensic science, polymer science, computer vision and machine learning, the team will be generating data to help build their flagship microplastic technology; an automated system for the detection, quantification and characterisation of microplastics.  This technology will revolutionise microplastic work globally, allowing fast and effective data to be collected to help understand where these microplastics are from.

“We wanted to bring together a group of multi-disciplinary researchers to tackle the plastic pollution problem and collect this new data.” explained Claire who is Associate Professor in Forensic and Crime Science at Staffordshire University.

“This expedition will globally showcase Staffordshire University’s microplastic methods and our patented technologies and test them in this important and challenging environment for the first time. A 4D heatmap of microplastics that is based on high resolution sampling of air, water and soil along the whole length of a river is the first of its kind and will hopefully demonstrate how global rivers can be mapped for microplastics.”

Microplastic samples taken every three miles along the river will be processed on the boat using Easylift® - a tape lifting system originally developed at Staffordshire University for fibre retrieval at crime scenes.

The samples will then be analysed using Spectral 360, an image processing system developed at Staffordshire University with capabilities similar to the human eye. This will use computer vision and machine learning to identify the microplastic samples and build up a data set for auto-detection.

The expedition, part funded by National Geographic Society, Kilroy Realty and Schmidt Marine Technology partners, will arrive on New York’s Hudson River at the end of June heading north to Albany before returning to Brooklyn for public events July 11-12.

In addition to microplastic detection, the team will also be working on macro-litter by piloting a new method for detecting debris in rivers using 360° cameras which will be mounted onto the mast, bow and back of the boat to build an automated system for real-time detection of plastic debris along the river.

Ahead of the trip Mohammed Sedky, Associate Professor in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at Staffordshire University, has helped in setting up the 360° cameras and carry out tests to find optimum angles to track marine litter.

Claire said: “The ultimate aim is for recreational or commercial boats to have these cameras on board and be constantly tracking litter. That information could then feed into a large-scale database so that rivers and other water environments around the globe can be mapped for plastic litter.  This will help improve clean-up activities as organisations would  be better informed as they would understand where litter is congregating and moving to.”

“Through these experiments we will be looking for the best ways to track and detect microplastics so that we can set out guidelines for best practice.

The scientists will also make several stops along the river to showcase their research to the public and educate people about microplastics.

Claire added: “It’s incredibly important that we educate the public and find new ways that we can all work together to tackle plastic pollution. We’re so excited to be working with the Rozalia Project on this ground-breaking research!”

Members of the public are invited to track their progress online; on Twitter [@StaffsMicro @rozaliaproject] and Instagram [@rozaliaproject @rachaelzoemiller] 

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