Tackling the Microplastic Problem with Science and Sport

By AJ Born | June 11, 2024

With the help of Harwin’s technology, incorporated into microplastic sampling systems, GB Row Challenge athletes and University of Portsmouth scientists are creating a comprehensive map of microplastic concentrations.

Microplastics have become prevalent in the environment, particularly in oceans and waterways. These microscopic strands of plastic can contain carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, and they accumulate in body tissues and organs, making them a threat to the marine animals that consume them, to the humans who consume the marine animals, and ultimately to the health of the entire planet.

Estimates indicate that there are now trillions of microplastics in the marine environment, adding up to 6 billion tons. These tiny particles are difficult to see and track. GB Row Challenge, in partnership with the University of Portsmouth, has developed a unique sampling system that provides a continuous flow of data to monitor the concentration of microplastics. “Microplastics often look like food to fish and crustaceans, being eaten in large quantities. There they can irrevocably damage the health of these creatures, due to the carcinogenic properties that such materials have,” said Professor Fay Couceiro, lead scientist and an expert in environmental pollution at the University of Portsmouth.

The Challenge

The GB Row Challenge consists of teams of rowers with up to six members who set out from Tower Bridge in London to circumnavigate the coastal waters of mainland Britain for a total distance of over 3,500 km (2,000 miles). It is a grueling challenge in which the participants remain at sea, rowing continuously, sleeping in turns, and battling the elements from the start to the finish. Participation requires about nine months of training that includes logging a required number of hours rowing at sea as well as reaching a certain level of qualification in the study of tidal charts and seamanship.

The goal of GB Row teams is to beat the Guinness World Record, which requires them to complete the challenge unsupported, meaning, essentially, without receiving any supplies or other assistance. The boats have a filtration system to turn seawater into drinking water, and teams carry rations for the duration of the race, enough to account for unforeseen circumstances that can add days to the trip.

The men’s speed record for an unsupported row around Great Britain was set at 26 days and 9 hours by The Islanders team in 2013. The women’s world record of 44 days and 20 hours was set in 2023 by Ithaca, the first all-female GB Row team. The 2024 event, which began June 9, has two teams competing, including Sea Change, an all-women team vying to break the record set last year.

GB Row Challenge combines the power of rowing with the purpose of driving scientific advancements to protect our planet’s marine ecosystems.

The Science

In addition to the possibility of setting a world record, the teams are greatly inspired by their contribution to the important scientific research being done in conjunction with the challenge.

Will de Laszlo, vice chairman of Harwin, founded GB Row Challenge in 2005 and was on the record-setting team in 2013. “He’s heavily involved with GB row and very passionate about the environment and sustainability,” said Ben Green, Harwin’s head of marketing communications.

De Laszlo presented GB Row to the University of Portsmouth as a unique opportunity to survey the entire coastline at the same time year after year. The University of Portsmouth is using the sampling data to create the first comprehensive map of microplastic concentrations in British coastal waters. The sampling project, which began in 2022, allows the scientists to identify changes in microplastic concentration over time and determine where along the coast the problem is the most severe. Other data is being collected as well to provide a more complete picture of the environment. The collected water samples are also used to measure environmental DNA (eDNA), cells shed from fish and mammals, to determine what species are living in and around the coast and any changes over time. Sensitive monitors measure salinity and temperature, and hydrophones (underwater microphones) track changes in the soundscape to study the impacts of human-made noise on marine wildlife.

The Engineering

Harwin, a GB Row sponsor and lead technical partner, provides funding along with engineering expertise and support. “Harwin wouldn’t normally set out to be involved in the engineering of systems like that, but we have access to 3D printers, milling machines, and grinding machines that GB Row doesn’t have access to,” said Green.

Alex Mair, product manager at Harwin, helped design the microplastic sampling and eDNA systems which were fitted to the competing boats. The bespoke solution, with many parts CAD-modeled and 3D-printed, was developed to meet several specific requirements.

First, because the microplastic particles are typically less than 5 mm in diameter, 0.044mm filters were selected to capture as many of them as possible without causing a blockage.

Next, to prevent hampering the teams’ speed and performance, the equipment had to be as compact and lightweight as possible. Extensive engineering went into designing the system to be installed and operated through a 180 mm-wide hatch. Low noise was necessary so the pump operation would not interfere with the athletes’ sleep or the hydrophone recordings.

Power consumption was another issue. 100Ah of stored energy had to supply all the scientific instrumentation for the entire race, so the microplastic sampling systems could only consume about 1-2Ah per day to extract and filter large amounts of water. Initially, the boats sampled at a rate of 0.7Lpm, which equates to 126L of water being sampled every day. Since the first effort, enhancements have been made. “That sample is now up to 200. And we’ve connected a solar feed into the battery that powers the system,” said Mair. He explained that in addition to the microplastic sampling system developed the first year, the teams used a kind of off-the-shelf unit to collect the eDNA samples. “This was not ideal for people doing an endurance challenge. It’s very hands-on, and there’s a lot of scope for contamination as well. I believe they found chicken in one of the samples which is thought to have come from somebody’s sandwich. So, for the second year, we realized that we needed to make an automated system for that as well, to eliminate any chance for contamination.” The new system only requires the teams to change a filter for the eDNA collection each day as well as replace a metal cassette in the microplastics system.

“This year has been more focused on refinements and improvements. But six systems worked flawlessly from introduction. So, we seem to have got it right straightaway. Very fortunate given it is essentially a mission-critical application,” Mair said.

Visit the Preferred Supplier page for Harwin to learn more about the company and its products.

Like this article? Check out our other New Technology articles, our Medical Market Page, and our 2024 Article Archive

Subscribe to our weekly e-newsletters, follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, and check out our eBook archives for more applicable, expert-informed connectivity content.

AJ Born
Related Posts
Get the Latest News