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Student engineering team invents USV prototype that removes microplastics from the ocean

October 17, 2023

UVic’s Environmental Engineering Club (UVEEC) recently unveiled the working prototype of their  Microplastic Collecting Unmanned Surface Water Vehicle (USV) at the Petch Fountain on UVic campus.

Driven by a desire to make a positive difference in the world with his engineering skills, UVEEC club founder Jun Park decided to create a forum for collective action on ocean health and sustainability, while studying for his mechanical engineering degree at UVic.

“I still remember the moment I saw microplastics stuck between drift woods on Cadboro Bay beach. I wanted to do something about it, but I was not sure where to start or how to help,” he explains. “This is when I began to explore the idea of forming a team. I thought that I cannot be the only person who feels this awful when faced with overwhelming problems that deepens the gap between nature and humanity.”

Park’s vision was inspirational and shared by many, and he soon recruited a diverse team of fellow students who combined a multiplicity of skills, talents and backgrounds to the club’s goal to take action on microplastic pollution in the ocean. UVic’s Environmental Engineering Club (UVEEC) was born, and two years later, after countless hours of hard work, late nights and collective efforts, the team was ready to officially unveil their completed project.

The result? The team created a fully functional USV, a twin-hulled catamaran, designed to collect microplastics from the ocean by dragging a filtration module through the water. Microplastics have significant known negative impacts on marine life, and unknown effects on humans. Removing them from the ocean has a positive impact on marine life and the overall ocean ecosystem.

“Our team tried to innovate and improve already existing technology while pushing to create something new, worked to commercialize it and to build a proof of concept prototype,” says Park. “It was designed to show to the industry, faculty and the general public, what we can achieve as students and to demonstrate the possibilities of the technology.”

The USV features an innovative microbubble filtration system, leveraging the concept of using bubbles to float plastic out of the water (plastic is hydrophobic, which means that water does not stick to it) so the team’s system uses tiny air bubbles to stick to the plastic particles and to float them to the surface.

“It feels amazing to be able to launch it,” says current club co-lead Julia Jungwirth, who emphasized the importance of both technical as well as soft skills in the team’s success. “We’re happy with how it turned out and what I learned from the club experience is the importance of setting deadlines and having an endpoint. I think everyone involved learned a great deal of the importance of project management to get to the point where we can actually celebrate completing the project.”

Jungwirth and Park want to thank the club’s generous sponsors as well as their supporters from the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science who believed in the project mission from the very beginning.

“We really cannot thank them enough because they are the ones who motivated us to do meaningful work and showed that they cared about our project,” says Park. “Basically, our club was like a mini start-up and the support of our sponsors was essential in making the project happen.”

Looking forward, the UVEEC team wants to further develop, test and refine their prototype specifically looking at how the data they collect with help them fine tune their filtration system and overall design.

Park graduated with his UVic Mechanical Engineering degree in May 2023 and is currently working as a full-time engineer with Greenlane Renewables in Burnaby.

“As a founder and ex-team lead, I learned a lot of valuable lessons and experienced unforgettable moments with the amazing UVEEC team,” he says.

UVEEC’s generous sponsors include: Teck Resources Limited Rainhouse Manufacturing Canada Ltd. Seaspan ULC Point Hope Maritime Ltd. Altech Anodizing Ltd. Maximum Prototyping Inc Altium® DigiKey Blue Robotics SolidWorks Designer PCBWay RapidHarness

Story by Ivan Watson