I was able to go on a trip up to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge a few days ago and couldn't help but notice the plastic that had washed up onto the uninhabited shores there. The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, MA is composed of over 4700 acres of diverse habitats including sandy beach and dune, cranberry bog, maritime forest and shrub land, and freshwater marsh. The refuge provides feeding, resting, and nesting habitat for migratory birds, many of which are endangered. Although most of the beaches are off limits to beachgoers for the majority of the year, there was still a fair amount of plastic debris that has washed up onto the beaches from the ocean. As most of the beach habitat in the park is nesting grounds for birds like the Piping Plover (an endangered species), I was disappointed to see it so littered with plastic marine debris. This goes to show that the microplastic and marine debris problem doesn't just affect our oceans, but also the fragile terrestrial species that use beach habitat for nesting and feeding. Even in a 4,700 acre protected refuge, you can't get away from marine debris on the beach...
When developing a prototype, it is important to be able to produce components cheaply, quickly, and precisely. Unfortunately, making highly custom components inexpensively and on a shortened timeline is very hard to achieve when working through a vendor. However, he advent of 3D printing technology has allowed inventors and makers to turn their designs into reality while meeting these three criteria. The cost of 3D printers has come way down in the last several years, allowing small businesses or project teams to acquire a printer and begin making their own components. Even better, I was able to build a 3D printer by sourcing off the shelf components and if you can believe it, 3D printing parts on a friends printer in order to complete the build. This allowed me to build a working 3D printer for about a tenth of the price of a commercial version. Since then, I have been making small upgrades to increase the resolution and accuracy of the printer, which has given me the ability to use it in the development of MantaRay.
3D printers use Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology to lay very small layers of plastic on top of one another to create a 3-dimensional part. The plastic that I use for most of my parts is PLA, which is a corn-based polymer that has been developed by chemists to meet structural and sustainable needs for themarket. The 3D printer has been absolutely crucial in the fabrication of the latest MantaRay prototype by allowing me to create fixtures, braces, and even gears for use on MantaRay. Stay tuned for another blog post with an updated video showing the 3D printer in action.
During December, I was able to go to Panama to help with Northeastern University's Three Seas field program. This year long program allows students to study in several ocean ecosystems including the Gulf of Maine, the Caribbean side of Panama, the Pacific side of Panama, and the Pacific Northwest. While I was in Panama, I collected ~1,000 microplastic samples from different beaches around Coiba, an island on the Pacific side of the country. The Coiba reserve is a Marine Protected Area (MPA) that prohibits commercial fishing, residential development, and boating traffic. As a result, it has very healthy reefs and fish communities. However, plastic knows no bounds, and the beaches and water around the MPA were completely littered with plastic pollution. Without humans there, it was clear that all of this plastic debris was coming in from elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The samples that I brought back will help to train MantaRay to process “real samples”, as opposed to cut up plastic from consumer products. Stay tuned for a report on the size distribution and plastic composition for these samples, which will be processed in the coming months.