Industry News

Results from Latest Phase of Ocean Cleanup Project, Fastwave’s Voyager Plays Major Role

The Ocean Cleanup Project is developing technology to extract plastic and other debris floating in the world’s oceans.

The technology relies on ocean currents to transport the plastic towards collection arrays that concentrate the material, so that it can be extracted and re-cycled. The project is focused on the “great garbage patch” in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, approximately 1500 nautical miles from the west coast of the USA.

Validation of the ocean plastic transport models is a requirement for the next phase of the project, which commenced in October 2016 and is already providing survey results. The survey phase deploys drifter buoys from a modified, long-range Lockheed C130 Hercules aircraft. Fastwave’s Voyager drifter is being used for this purpose due to its ability to accurately track the surface layer of the ocean, where the debris is concentrated. The Voyager’s ability to survive the demanding air drop requirements and extended operational endurance also make it ideal for this project. Fastwave donated a Voyager buoy for this phase of the project.

Initial findings of its Aerial Expedition - a series of low-speed, low-altitude lights across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the plastic accumulation zone between Hawaii and California provided confirmation of the abundance of plastic debris  sized 0.5 m/1.5’ and up. While the flight plan took us along the Northern boundary of the patch, more debris was recorded than what is expected to be found in the heart of the accumulation zone. Initial estimates of the experienced observer crew indicate that in a span of 2.5 hours, over a thousand items were counted.

For the development of a cleanup technology, it is essential to understand the problem, specifically the dimensions of the individual objects and the plastic accumulation as a whole. The nature and amount of the debris determine the design of cleanup systems, the logistics of hauling plastic back to shore, the methods for recycling plastic, and the costs of the cleanup.

The quest to answer this question started in August 2015, when The Ocean Cleanup’s fleet of about 30 vessels crossed the patch simultaneously in an operation named the Mega Expedition. On their crossing a wide range of debris sizes were sampled, producing the first high-resolution map of the patch. By using sampling nets that were 80x larger than conventional scientific measurement tools, it was discovered that the amount of large debris was heavily underestimated.

The Mega Expedition successfully measured plastic up to 0.5m/1.5’ in size, but there were signs of a significant mass of plastic even larger than that. This includes “ghost nets” - discarded fishing nets many meters in diameter, which are notorious for ensnaring sea life and ship propellers. To accurately quantify those and other very large debris, a much larger area must be covered, which lead to the launch of the Aerial Expedition. For every 5 minutes of flight the same ocean surface area is scanned that was covered by the entire Mega Expedition in 2015. This increase in survey area enables the quantification of the largest pieces of trash in the ocean, resolving the last piece of this puzzle.

Once all exploration flights are finalized later in October, the results from the Aerial Expedition will be combined with the data collected during the 2015 Mega Expedition in a peer-reviewed scientific paper expected to be published early 2017.

Boyan Slat, CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup, said, “The Aerial Expedition - our final reconnaissance mission - brings us another step closer to the cleanup of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The initial findings of the expeditions again underline the urgency to tackle the growing accumulation of plastic in the world’s oceans.”

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