Boyan Slat – One of the most important innovators of our time?
Boyan Slat came to the world’s attention in a whirl of publicity, largely overnight, when his TED talk went viral. He was 18 years old at the time and claimed to have developed a solution to collecting and harvesting the millions of pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans.
The problem is this:
Millions of tons of plastic have entered the oceans, and the plastic concentrates in five rotating currents, called ‘gyres’ in the oceans across the globe. The plastic is harmful to several species of marine life and causes damage to both sea vessels and humans. Environmentally it’s a huge problem that going forward is solved by prevention, but currently leaves us with millions of tons worth of plastics flowing around the world.
Boyan heads an organisation called The Ocean Clean Up who are working towards a solution for collecting the plastic in the oceans. They aim to harness the power of the oceans to collect and harvest the debris. An array of floating barriers will first catch, and then concentrate the debris, enabling a platform to efficiently extract the plastic afterwards. The Ocean Clean Up is now crowd-sourcing towards what they feel will be a large-scale and operational pilot in 3-4 years’ time.
Global Innovation Magazine spoke to Boyan Slat in the Netherlands.
What struck me when I watched your TED talk is that you have quite a lot of self-belief, and certainly a lot of positivity. Growing up, how did this instil itself in you?
Not sure on that one. My parents don’t do anything that’s relevant to the project, they are not engineers or anything, it’s not their fault I’m this way! (Laughs). I have always been interested in engineering and technology, I have always entertained myself thinking about solving problems. I was 16 years old and it struck me that I was coming across more plastic in the ocean than fish. These types of problems are the major challenges of our generation.
Did you have any particular hobbies or academic interests growing up?
Treehouses…when I was five years old I was obsessed with Lego, yeah, mostly stuff like that. A lot of science experiments, I was a geek growing up, I still am. I have always thought about things a little differently. Teachers would always complain, saying I would never stick to an assignment.
You’re quite young…
Listen I’m quite old, I just turned 20. (Laughs)
But I think to have such an ambition and such a big task to focus your time on, to me, I would have thought that this didn’t come out of the blue, but that it developed itself when you were growing up?
A lot of people ask about the role of teachers or parents in this, but they didn’t have a key role in this development.
So your parents were always happy for you to find your own way?
Sure. They are supportive, but it’s not like the inspiration came from them though.
So where did it come from then, diving?
Diving at least in terms of becoming aware of the problem. Like everyone else, I originally was thinking about nets (to clean up the ocean) but I quickly realised this wouldn’t be a feasible method. The violence and size of the ocean and the associated cost and by-catch meant it wasn’t feasible. I was doing a high school science project and I decided to use this time to study the problem.
How old were you then?
16. I took a year to work on it. I had an idea to passively collect plastic by attaching (a platform) to the seabed, but then the idea developed into using the power of the ocean itself. I was in the Azores, in a restaurant on the terrace and came up with the idea of harnessing the ocean’s power to collect the plastic. Hey, presto.
It’s an organisation now, so it’s grown enormously from the original idea, how did that happen?
That was the most difficult part of getting things done. I couldn’t stop thinking of the project and by this time I was at the Delft University of Technology. I started talking to professors and industry experts, and I came up with 50 questions that I needed to answer in order for this to become a feasible solution. The process was ridiculously slow, after a couple of months, no answers were done. I then decided to put my studies on hold, as well as socialising. I put everything into it, gave myself half a year and put all my 300 euros pocket money into it. Originally only two people offered help, but after the TED talk went viral I was getting about 1500 emails a day with people offering their help. This enabled the crowd-funding and a team to be assembled which grew to 100 people. We then proved our feasibility.
It sounds simple Boyan…
It was complicated. It’s a large number of people, but most people were volunteers and part-time. Pushing people on these terms is tough. Lots of people were also abroad. Canada, Australia etc.
Did you get financial support from Governments or foundations?
Plenty offered their support. However, right now our funding is via individuals, companies, institutes and crowd-funding.
Tell me about the pilot stage?
Right now, we are working towards a large scale and operational pilot due to start in 3 to 4 years time. The largest test we have performed is 40 metres in length; eventually, we will go to 100 km in the implementation phase. We eventually want to be even bigger: 200 to 500 km. Location-wise we have lots of options; we are waiting for the outcomes of discussions.
How did the largest boom test go?
40 metres was in the Azores, the test went fine. However it was an experiment, thus some measurements weren’t taken. We are looking to repeat this experiment most likely, hoping that we validate simulations.
You won’t be near shipping lanes then?
We can’t deploy in shipping lanes. As long as we comply with the rules of the ocean, this shouldn’t be a problem. However if a ship crossed it, we don’t think there would be any damage.
So there are several points globally at sea where plastics end up, gyres as they are known, have you been to any of them?
In the past half-year, we have done three expeditions. I participated in the first one, at the North Atlantic gyre. Yes, it was very interesting.
Tell me about it…
The first three days, I try not to think about. Turns out I get seasick. There’s no way back once out there, so that was intense. Being sick for three days. The weather cleared though, so we trawled and did experiments. Four days away from the Internet was a good experience.
Was it shocking to see?
There are no islands of plastic as some people think. It’s very dispersed the plastic. The scale is huge though. 95 per cent of the plastic is quite large.
What’s the definition of large?
All the way up to parts of boats, Gerry cans, nets, that size of the object.
Is your system going to be able to collect plastic, both large and small pieces?
Yes. The spectrum is from about 20mm up to 3 metres. Everything larger can be collected but that will be a manual collection process. We have incorporated a maintenance and inspection vessel as part of the project.
So this is done automatically?
Everything is automatically captured. The booms move the plastic to the centre, to a platform where processing occurs. We can adjust the processing equipment.
How does the ocean power contribute then?
The small plastics utilise a pump and centrifuge method to get the plastics onto the collection platform. The buffer where the plastic ends up is emptied periodically. The larger pieces have a mesh conveyor, which scoop out to a shredder, which reduces volume as well.
It’s a really bold idea. It’s not surprising some people are saying it can’t be done!
Does that affect you?
I wasn’t surprised at the criticism. Many people have been working on this topic for years. Suddenly an 18-year old says “I can clean the ocean”. I understand. How do I deal with it? I decided to not respond at first. It was just an idea a year ago, so the only appropriate response would be a 530-page feasibility report that shows it is actually feasible. We have now published the report. I have now published a brief response, but it’s not much different from what’s in the feasibility report.
Originally you said the collected plastic could have some worth financially, is that still the case?
It definitely has some value. We have proven that the plastic can be turned into oil; three independent companies have confirmed this. Another option is mechanical recycling, we have also shown it’s suitable for injection moulding so that means we can make anything out of it. The quality is much better than expected. There are still possibilities. Fortunately, there have been quite a few companies that have shown an interest in doing something with the plastic once we have it out of the ocean. We are focusing on the pilot stage though, and the opinion exists but it’s not necessary for this project to succeed.
When are you aiming to be up and running?
3.5 years will take us to the end of the pilot stage, but still, things need to happen. Fundraising, manufacturing, commissioning so I think we could be operational by 2020.
Did you have any scientists or engineers that particularly inspire you?
I do get inspired by our 70 or so engineers and scientists of course, who it’s a pleasure to work with every day.
Are you the boss? How do you find running an organisation?
Yes. Well, I’m very thankful for all the support, but looking back at it I do remember it being quite a challenge. All entrepreneurs want to be in a position of going from controlling it all, to where it controls itself somewhat. Yes sometimes it’s difficult, but you learn. Personally I really like being involved in the engineering process, so I put a lot of my time aside to work on the research and development side of things.
Once in a while a project and person come along that make us stop in our tracks. The work they are doing and striving for the long term is so important and wide-reaching, that it can’t be ignored. Perhaps it was Boyan’s age that got him noticed originally; social media certainly helped. However, one thing is for sure: if he has got this right, and if it can be done, Boyan will go down in history as one of the most important innovators of our time. I’m hoping he has got it right.
At the time of writing The Ocean Clean Up had exceeded its 2 million dollar crowdfunding target. For more information go to www.theoceancleanup.com
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