Environment

Ocean Cleanup Project struggles to get its system up to speed

Ocean Cleanup Project struggle...
Dubbed Wilson, the Ocean Cleanup Project’s first barrier is designed to work like a giant plastic-eating Pac-Man
Dubbed Wilson, the Ocean Cleanup Project’s first barrier is designed to work like a giant plastic-eating Pac-Man
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Workers on the Ocean Cleanup Project did manage to pull some large ghost nets from the water while it did the tinkering
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Workers on the Ocean Cleanup Project did manage to pull some large ghost nets from the water while it did the tinkering
Around six weeks have passed since the Ocean Cleanup Project installed its first trash-catching system in the Pacific
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Around six weeks have passed since the Ocean Cleanup Project installed its first trash-catching system in the Pacific
Large ghost nets were retrieved from the water by the Ocean Cleanup Project
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Large ghost nets were retrieved from the water by the Ocean Cleanup Project
Ghost nets being pulled from the water by the Ocean Cleanup Project
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Ghost nets being pulled from the water by the Ocean Cleanup Project
Dubbed Wilson, the Ocean Cleanup Project’s first barrier is designed to work like a giant plastic-eating Pac-Man
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Dubbed Wilson, the Ocean Cleanup Project’s first barrier is designed to work like a giant plastic-eating Pac-Man
Plastic waste afloat in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
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Plastic waste afloat in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
A support vessel pulls plastic waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
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A support vessel pulls plastic waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Around six weeks have passed since the Ocean Cleanup Project installed its first trash-catching system in the Pacific, and it hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for the huge floating barrier so far. The team reports that attempts to overcome some initial teething problems haven't exactly gone to plan, with the team searching for new solutions to bring its system up to speed.

Dubbed Wilson, the Ocean Cleanup Project's first barrier is built to work like a Giant Pac-Man, using its U-shaped form with a floating barrier on the surface and a three-meter (10-ft) skirt dangling below to scoot through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch collecting rubbish as it goes.

For that to work, the barrier needs to move faster than the plastic it is trying to collect, and in theory it should do just that. Because it is propelled through the water by a combination of the ocean currents, surface waves and the wind through the air, it should reach greater velocities than the floating trash that is powered by the ocean currents alone.

But after a month of observations, the team found the system was collecting trash as hoped, but much of it was escaping after a relatively short time. This is because the system is unable to build up enough speed to hold the trash inside its u-shaped mouth, and is at times even being outpaced by the plastic.

The initial remedy was to try and widen the mouth by 60 to 70 m (200 to 230 ft), which should create a larger surface area for the wind and waves to push it along, kind of like replacing a small kite with a larger one. This solution appeared relatively simple to implement, required just a lengthening of the lines that hold the barrier in its u-shaped form.

Unfortunately, this hasn't quite done the trick, with the team reporting this week that the line extension failed to widen the mouth of the system and therefore hasn't increased its speed. Workers did manage to pull some large ghost nets from the water while it did the tinkering, but in order to get the system performing as intended the team has to return to the drawing board.

"Wilson Update: the closing line extension did not effectively increase the span of the system and, therefore, the speed did not improve," The Ocean Cleanup crew tweeted. "Further approaches to widen the u-shape are being evaluated and tested by the team."

This is by no means a disaster as the team had never expected everything to go to plan and knew tackling a problem as big as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation of plastic waste three times the size of continental France, would involve plenty of problem-solving on the fly.

If it can get this initial proof-of-concept system up and running, it hopes to use it as a blueprint for as many as 60 replicas. According to its modeling, a fleet this size could collect half of the plastic in the patch every five years.

Source: The Ocean Cleanup (Twitter)

8 comments
Martin Winlow
Mildly puzzled why the designers thought that relying (at least in part) on sea currents to propel the boom would work when the plastic is subject to the same currents! Anyway, seems to me the most obvious answer is to mount some sort of 'sails' on the top of the boom to get more relative movement from winds. Of course, they may be blowing in the wrong direction but I guess as there is so much plastic out there, any direction is 'good'. But then again, timing the arrival of the vessels that are going to retrieve the collected plastic will be pretty crucial otherwise the winds might do a 180 and all the collected plastic will be released as the boom takes off in the opposite direction! Seems a shame they couldn't add a machine to compress and bale the plastic as it goes - maybe even using the plastic as fuel to power it... For that matter, the same process could give the boom motive power... The other Q is... what are they going to do with the collected plastic? Bit of a dent in the market since China stopped taking it all...
Colt12
A solar powered boat to tow the collection unit.
guzmanchinky
Such a tough environment to work in. I really admire their tenacity and hope it works!
jd_dunerider
Adding small rigid sails to the center of the U would drive the sides further out since the center would be moving quicker.
ljaques
I thought the design of these things was to collect trash to remove it from the ocean. Why aren't they at the Garbage Patch collecting and removing? Why do they show no record of trash removal? (2 ghost nets this time around?) Sure, I know they're trying to get the beast working right, but older trash in the Garbage patch is disintegrating, so the sooner people start haulin', the better.
WB
there should be a plastic tax - that pays for efforts like this when plastic ends up back in the ocean
Fritz
No country should be allowed to damp waste into water. No excuse also for "developing countries"
chinamike
It's a great concept for sure. I remember seeing the young man's proposal some years ago (two-three?) on a TED talk I think? Regardless, someone will have a Eureka! moment and make it so it can keep up with the plastic. Why not put some sort of pointy, solar powered/wave powered, below-water pontoons with propellers beneath it at different intervals? That could move it along. Just guessing; I am no engineer!