Something that inspired my solution to an environmental problem was the annual Clean the Beach event I participate in with my volunteer group, where we would go to a local beach and help pick up trash. Over the span of 3 hours, all 7 teams would return with bags teeming with trash. When I first read the objective of this design challenge, I was reminded of the horrors that plagued our waters. As a person who lives relatively close to the coast, I felt a sense of responsibility to help out. As a result, I researched more into the topic and realized that agricultural runoffs of nitrogen and phosphorus are one dominating problem that harms aquatic life and habitats. I believed that I would be able to create a solution that can help to combat these issues.

What it does

The innovation is an all-in-one structure that can collect and filter trash, test and record nitrogen and phosphorus levels to detect trends, and find ways to reduce and curb the harmful effects of these chemical runoffs. First and foremost, the main structure is used to collect trash. It contains a flap that pushes floating trash into a large container, which has a mesh lining to prevent the trash from floating out. Underneath the trash collector, there are nitrogen and phosphorus electronic testers attached to report data to a computer system that will record the chemical levels. Before deploying the device, the body of water will be split up into geographical squares of 50 m x 50 m for efficiency; it will also allow for comparison across different sectors of the waters. Furthermore, the device will be holding a storage of beads, which have a shell made of dissolvable seaweed plastic. The most important aspect of the beads, though, is that they contain calcium ions and barley straw. Calcium ions can bond with phosphates to create calcium-phosphate, boosting mineral and bone regeneration. More importantly, though, calcium ions can help to reduce the amount of phosphorus in the ocean. Barley straw can combat high nitrogen levels, and when it rots, it releases hydrogen peroxide, killing the algae that cause eutrophication and leaves dead zones devoid of life. The data collected by the testers will also be used to determine the number of beads that should be deployed in each sector.

How we built it

I brainstormed on a Google document and recorded all the links where I got information from. I CAD-ed some simple ideas to view the solution in 3D. After I was pretty confident in my design, I drew it out and made a simple, comprehensible model on OnShape. I also created some pseudocode and a mathematical equation to determine the necessary number of beads. I also drew out the geographical sectioning that I hope to achieve.

Challenges we ran into

One challenge I ran into during the process of building the device is determining the best way to measure the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. First, I researched chemicals that would precipitate the nitrogen or phosphorus runoffs. With the mass of the precipitate, we can use molar mass and stoichiometry to find the moles of nitrogen. Converting all the values we get to moles is also helpful for future research. However, almost, if not all, the elements would not work because they were either not abundant enough, too weak to overcome the bonds to water, or too dangerous to water. What I ended up using were electronic nitrogen and phosphorus checkers. They are a bit more costly but they are compact and can achieve the goal that we need them to.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

One accomplishment that I feel particularly proud of was finding a solution for the release of fish who may get caught in the device. My original idea was to create a narrow hallway for fish to maneuver through. However, I later realized that the ocean also consists of small pieces of trash that can escape back into the water. Next, I considered creating a separate tube that would be more difficult for the trash to slip through but, at the same time, it would also be harder for the fish to escape as well. Lastly, I settled on the idea of movement sensors on the flap. However, another concern that arose was small fish whose movement may not have enough force to be detected. That is why I added holes on the bottom layer. Because trash typically floats, it will be less likely to fall through the horizontal holes. The holes are also extremely small given that they were designed specifically for small fish. The motion sensors can sense movement from big fish and unlock the flap. With the flap being able to rotate freely, fish can push their way out of the filter. When the flap comes back, it will push back any trash that is trying to escape. After a few seconds with no detection of motion, the gear will lock back into place.

What we learned

Through this project, I learned a lot more about the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorous runoffs and how this concern can be combated. For instance, I did not know the benefits of barley wheat until I started the project. Another aspect I personally found interesting was how chemical problems didn’t always need large-scale solutions; a high school student like me is more than capable of designing and implementing an effective solution without overly expensive or extensive resources. It was also surprising to see that many solutions created were aimed to help coastal regions by tackling the trash that makes its way into the water. I rarely stumbled across an innovation that would deal with the dangerous levels of nitrogen and phosphorus present in our oceans and rivers. Even if I did find a product that would combat them, they were primarily designed for aquariums and fish tanks rather than large bodies of water like lakes or oceans.

What's next for Coastal Care

There are definitely many improvements I want to see in future versions of Coastal Care. First, I want to find easier ways to check the nitrogen and phosphorus contents. The checkers that are currently implemented as a part of my solution are costly, especially if my device was to scale in production. Furthermore, I also plan to expand the project by creating a design for fast-moving ships. As of right now, the device is only compatible with slow-moving ships to be more conscious of the fish that inhabit the waters. After all, it would be difficult to sense the motion of the fish and open up the flap if the device was moving at high speeds. I hope to uncover a solution to this issue and create another version of the device that can be used for faster moving ships.

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