stub From Fetus to Adult, Microplastics Are Polluting Our Bodies - Can AI and Light-Driven Photocatalysis Help? -
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From Fetus to Adult, Microplastics Are Polluting Our Bodies – Can AI and Light-Driven Photocatalysis Help?



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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is such a tantalizing technology for many reasons.  However, above all, it is its versatility that makes it potentially world-changing.  Whether it be intuitive analytics, the development of medicines and healthcare procedures, or simply task automation – AI is set to play a massive role in the future we are building today.  To that end, a team of researchers at the University of Waterloo (U of W) has recently released a study that looks to leverage the technology to address the growing problem of microplastics in our world today.

Understanding Microplastics

Before diving into how AI can help us address microplastics, it is important to first learn what the term means and why they are so harmful to the human body and our environment.

What are Microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that measure less than 5 millimeters in diameter.  They originate from various sources, including the breakdown of larger plastic waste, microbeads in personal care products, and synthetic fibers shed while washing clothes.

Sadly, our reliance on such materials means that microplastics are now pervasive in the environment.  They are found in oceans, freshwater systems, and even in the air.  This is partly because their small size makes them easily transportable across different ecosystems and even more difficult to remove once they have entered the environment.

Dangers Involved

The danger of microplastics lies in their size and longevity.  Due to their small size, they can be ingested by wildlife and enter the food chain, potentially causing physical and chemical harm to organisms.  Microplastics can absorb and concentrate toxic substances from the surrounding environment, which may then be transferred to organisms that ingest them.  This is particularly concerning given that in recent years, we have already begun detecting the presence of microplastics in human placenta.

Additionally, their widespread presence and durability mean they accumulate in ecosystems quicker than they are broken down, posing long-term ecological and health risks.

The full extent of their impact on human health is still under investigation, but growing concern exists about their potential to cause harm.

Uncontrolled Distribution Events

In recent years, new insights into microplastic pollution have resulted in a growing concern around their prevalence, as we have now learned that naturally occurring events like hurricanes may play a role in furthering contamination.  For example, Canadian researchers found that in Newfoundland during the 2021 Hurricane ‘Larry' an alarming surge in microplastic deposition was recorded, peaking at about 113,569 particles per square meter per day in the North Atlantic.

This phenomenon served to illustrate how hurricanes can act as powerful distribution events, transporting these minute pollutants from the oceans to terrestrial ecosystems and potentially to remote areas.  Such findings underscore the escalating issue of microplastic pollution, shedding light on how environmental events can exacerbate their spread, posing a growing threat to ecosystems and human health worldwide.

What is Being Done about Microplastics?

Thankfully, there are already research teams worldwide working to address and one day solve the growing issue of microplastics.  The following are a couple of examples of this that will hopefully result in such approaches being adopted en masse.

Artificial Intelligence

As mentioned, an interdisciplinary team at the University of Waterloo is already pioneering the use of AI to tackle the growing problem of microplastic pollution.  Recently, the team detailed its efforts in a study that saw it utilize advanced AI in identifying microplastics more efficiently and accurately.

The team's AI tool, PlasticNet, employs deep learning and spectroscopy to discern the unique “fingerprints” of these particles, allowing for faster and more precise identification.  This is particularly beneficial for various industries, including,

  • wastewater treatment
  • food production

These industries play a large role in ensuring widespread access to clean drinking water for a huge portion of the Earth's population, and any advancements in their ability to treat or prevent the distribution of microplastics can have huge environmental and health impacts.

As part of the study, PlasticNet has already been shown to be a successful tool in a local wastewater treatment plant. It demonstrated its potential through the enhancement of the microplastic detection and removal processes, marking a significant step towards a sustainable future.

Light-Driven Photocatalysis

Beyond AI, other approaches, such as' light-driven photocatalysis ,' are being explored to reduce microplastics.  This was recently demonstrated by another team of researchers led by Professor Shizhang Qiao from the University of Adelaide, who presented a solution to polyethylene waste by using the process to transform it into valuable chemicals.  More specifically, the team states that with this approach it,

“…upcycled polyethylene plastic waste into ethylene and propionic acid with high selectivity using atomically dispersed metal catalysts,”

While not all microplastics are polyethylene, it remains extremely common and widespread.

Interestingly, these findings could synergize with AI technologies, especially in optimizing the process and enhancing the precision of chemical conversion.  AI could aid in monitoring and adjusting the photocatalytic reactions in real-time, ensuring maximal efficiency and selectivity.  This integration could lead to more sustainable waste management practices and advance the development of a circular economy, addressing both environmental concerns and the need for valuable chemical products.

What Can You Do?

For those who are conscious of their environmental footprint, you may wonder if there is anything you can do to prevent microplastics from dispersing.  The following are a few easy examples of common habits that will make a difference when adopted en masse.

Minimize Single-Use plastics: This may seem trivial, but the use of single-use plastics like straws, cutlery, bags, etc., add up to significant amounts across the population.  Simply opting for reusable options can make a noticeable difference.  Notably, there are already examples of government initiatives tackling this.

Natural Fabric Alternatives: Whenever possible, opt to purchase and wear clothing made of natural fibers like Wool, as popular synthetic materials like Fleece are commonly made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

These are just two examples of habit changes that have the potential to make a difference.  Whether you choose to adopt them, begin using metal bottles over plastic, or some other approach, it all adds up.

Industry Players

As it stands, the above studies are just a glimpse at what the future may hold.  Such practices must still be fleshed out and perfected before being implemented commercially and at scale.  For now, the following are a few examples of companies working to achieve just that, taking the invaluable insights provided by such research teams and building atop it.

*Figures provided below were accurate at the time of writing and are subject to change.  Any potential investor should verify metrics*

1. PureCycle Technologies, Inc.

finviz dynamic chart for  PCT

MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)

This company focuses on mechanical recycling, converting polypropylene plastic waste into like-new plastic.  It recently announced the mechanical completion of its first commercial-scale facility, Ironton, which is expected to have an annual production capacity of 107 million pounds of ultra-pure recycled resin.

2. Loop Industries, Inc.

finviz dynamic chart for  LOOP

MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)

Loop Industries deploys depolymerization technology to break down unrecyclable PET plastic and polyester fiber waste into their base building blocks.  Brands like L’Oreal have utilized its technology to produce upcycled bottles.  It is also expanding its technology to the Asian market in collaboration with SK Geo Centric.

3. Danimer Scientific, Inc

finviz dynamic chart for  DNMR

MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)

Danimer Scientific specializes in producing bio-based plastics using microorganisms to create polyesters from plant oils.  It offers biodegradable and compostable alternatives to traditional plastic products.  The company went public through a SPAC merger, signaling its rapid growth in the bioplastics sector.

Final Thoughts

With advancements in AI and processes like light-driven photocatalysis, the future of combating microplastic pollution appears promising.  As these technologies evolve and gain commercial viability, they offer hope for mitigating microplastics' environmental and health impacts.

For now, the ongoing research and development in this field are critical in shaping a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future.