Tiny Robotic Snail Could Help Clean Up Microplastic Pollution

  • Microplastic Challenge: Ocean pollution by microplastics, from various sources, poses a significant threat to ecosystems and human health.
  • Limited Understanding: Despite their ubiquity, the impact of microplastics on oceans and humans remains poorly understood.
  • Innovative Solution: Cornell University researchers developed a robot inspired by a snail’s motion, offering a potential tool to combat ocean microplastics.
  • Snail-Inspired Design: Utilizing 3D printing, a flexible, undulating sheet mimics a Hawaiian apple snail’s motion, creating an efficient open-air fluid pumping system.
  • Efficiency Advantage: Compared to closed systems, the snail-based design proves more efficient, capable of capturing even smaller particles missed by traditional collection methods.
  • Promising Development: While currently a prototype, the design showcases promise in addressing the challenge of ocean microplastics, encouraging further exploration and scaling.
Snail-inspired robot could scoop ocean microplastics (Source: YouTube/Cornell University)

The Growing Issue of Microplastics in Oceans

Microplastics are becoming a bigger problem in our oceans. They come from various sources, such as small pieces breaking off larger plastic items and tiny beads in cosmetics. Despite their widespread presence, we know little about how they affect ocean life and human health. Scientists and environmentalists are concerned, and they’re actively searching for solutions to this issue.

A Snail-Inspired Robot to Combat Microplastics

Researchers at Cornell University may have found a unique solution to tackle microplastics – a small robot inspired by a snail. They looked at the Hawaiian apple snail, a common aquarium creature. This snail uses the movement of its foot to create a flow on the water’s surface, drawing in floating food particles. The researchers used a 3D printer to make a flexible sheet that moves like waves when powered by a rotating structure. This wave-like motion forms a pumping system that can pull in water and particles.

Tiny Robotic Snail Could Help Clean Up Microplastic Pollution
Sunny Jung, professor of biological and environmental engineering (far right) and study coauthors (from left), Jisoo Yuk, Chris Roh and Yicong Fu, watch a demonstration of their snail-inspired robot. (Image: Jason Koski/Cornell University)

How the Snail-Based Robot Works

The team at Cornell University, led by Professor Sunghwan “Sunny” Jung, explained that they drew inspiration from the snail’s ability to collect food particles at the water and air interface. They engineered a device that mimics this process, aiming to collect microplastics in oceans or on the surface of water bodies. The open-air system they designed proves to be more efficient than closed systems, like pumps enclosed in tubes. Moreover, it has the potential to capture particles too small for traditional plastic collection methods like drag nets or conveyor belts.

Promising Steps in the Fight Against Ocean Microplastics

While the current prototype needs to be made larger for practical use in the real world, the snail-inspired design shows promise in combating ocean microplastics. Researchers hope that this innovative approach could contribute to solving the growing problem of microplastic pollution in our oceans.

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