Can a future fleet of robotic fish clean up microplastic pollution in the ocean?

Written by Javed Iqbal

Microplastic is a threat. They have been found everywhere from the summit of Mount Everest to melt Antarctic snow. Microplastics have even been found circulating inside human blood. But perhaps the place where they have the worst impact is in the Earth’s oceans. Plastic is the single most common waste in the sea– often degrades over time into small pieces that are ingested by fish and are capable of wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems.

That’s why scientists have been working on a new method of getting rid of them forever: fish-shaped robots that can actually clean the oceans while swimming.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nano letters, researchers at Sichuan University in China created a fishbone made from a light-activated material that can absorb microplastics when swimming in water. The team believes the new bot can be used to transport pollutants to another location where they can be collected and disposed of properly. It can also be used to detect and monitor microplastics in harsher environments that humans cannot easily explore, such as the icy waters of the Arctic.

“The proof-of-concept robot has been demonstrated to emphasize its maximum swimming speed of 2.67 body lengths per second, the speed of which is comparable to planktons,” the study authors wrote, adding that the speed surpasses similar soft robots.

Fish-bot is made of a composite material that is safe for marine environments and reacts physically when a near-infrared light laser points at it. Flashing the laser on and off can make the robot’s “tail” flutter back and forth so it can mimic a real fish and swim. As it moves, microplastics adhere to its body, just as sucking fish do to whales and sharks. On top of that, the material used by Sichuan University researchers can repair itself when cut – meaning it’s effective self-healing.

Although we are still far away from shoals of fishbots roaming the oceans, this is still an innovative solution to the persistent problem of microplastics in our polluted seas. It could one day provide a new way to rid some areas of pollutants – just do not eat one if you catch it on your line.

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Javed Iqbal

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