An Engineer’s New Year Fantasy

Here’s a fantasy vision. Nothing to do with snow or twerking or New Year Resolutions. It seems particularly that of an engineer: not that of a journalist or scientist or even of an oceanologist. Tell me I am wrong, go on.

In the newspaper piece, the headline was “Five trillion pieces of plastic in seas are damaging food chain”. It told of many findings and repeated, as well as much else, previously mentioned topics such as how such rubbish accumulates mostly in five large ocean gyres. There were interesting maps of distribution by particle size around the world’s oceans. The piece was based upon a research paper from the University of Western Australia.

Now I did not look, deliberately, at any of the internet, below the line comment. It might have spoilt the pristine enthusiasm of the moment or even destroyed the fantasy with facts, [though on line there are usually more abuse than facts].

Now here is the skeleton of a vision: triggered by the scenario, a Global Project envisaged by this engineer.

If much or most of this material is gathered in Gyres, then that situation is, if not good, but at least better than it might be. Concentrated in one [or five!] areas, we know where to go to pick most of it up. [First Project question – do these gyres really exist?]

If we can pick it up in the gyres once, the material that is remaining elsewhere will after a suitable period be ‘sucked into’ or go into orbit around the gyres again. So we go extracting to the same place later. [Second Project question, “Will we need to do it more than once? It may affect the engineering, if not].

One author said that in the gyres it was like “sailing through ‘plastic soup’”. So that sounds as though it is relatively easy to skim it from the surface or just below. Reminds me of, when cooking, how I extract shredded red cabbage with a colander out of its rinsing water. So: go sail through with a net or other filter and the stuff is on your boat and not in the water. [Third Project question. Specify a net or filter required in terms of pore size and power required to pass water through it?]

Perhaps there is a more subtle way of extraction developed for other problems like ocean spillages. [Fourth Project question. What can BP or other specialist salvage contractors with such as their Gulf spillage experience tell us?]

So we need to specially design extraction vessels sailing across and within the gyres. But how many do we need and how fast can they sail? May be they can sail relatively slowly to save energy: time is not of the essence in such a Project. [Fifth Project question. How big are the gyres?]

The propulsion of extraction vessels, like most other things in this world will need energy and power. This will be a significant cost apparently and affect the details of the Project. They will be sailing in the open ocean. [Sixth Project question. Can the vessels be solar or wind powered?].

The crew is another major cost in operating ships at sea. Could we dispense with them? We could plan to use of a fleet of autonomous, radar visible, small ships: they could perhaps be small and launch size [Seventh Project question. Ask the academics in the robotic field if we know enough yet to design and set up a reliable fleet].

Traversing oceans land to land is not something easily done by small ships. For another thing, a small boat extracting waste will soon reach its pay load. So it seems that a Mother Ship with a fleet is the operating scheme. Such a Mother Ship could carry an economic load to the processing plant on land. [Eighth Project question. What are the processing economics for waste plastic crumb?]

Can we overcome the problems of marine safety? Perhaps this might be easier as they may be operating in remote areas of the oceans but then maybe not. It depends on where the gyres are found. [Ninth Project question. Query the international coastguard authorities on the size of the problem and any potential solution.]

We seek to solve the economics of transporting the extracted material to process plants on land. Perhaps the inhabitants of Pacific and other ocean islands or remote corners of continents might consider hosting a plant set up. It would provide work and compressed plastic as raw material for building. [Tenth Project question. Could such a plant be powered by renewable energy sources?]

Such a Project may need and international effort. [Eleventh Project question. Does it need the United Nations or a somewhat more agile organisation?]

Well, there you have it. That’s as far as I have got as a first stab. Cost and economics are probably more central than the technology. I imagine the latter is already in sight. As an international good it does not necessarily have to make a profit.

Now go on then: en primeur, nothing more. Have a think about it, but give it a fair wind with a constructive approach. There are probably at least a dozen more major Project questions.. I fancy that there might be a feeding frenzy of the critics but may be the Project or something like it could be done.

By the way, along the route of the text of this piece there is a screech about this plastic weighing “more than the entire biomass of humans”. Shock! Horror! No, it’s not good but my first thought is that, at an estimate of 269,000 tons, this is about one or maybe two big, modern container ships. Think how many ships are afloat and then think of the weight of the buildings erected by the human race. Our biomass is, to not mince, words a stupid measure worthy of the worst Greenpeace hype.

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