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In Gering, Nebraska, a town with a population of just 8,360, there's only one water source: the Ogallala Aquifer. If this were to drain or be compromised, where would residents get clean water? That question motivated the engineering class at Gering High School to find a way to limit the pollutants entering the water supply, and they looked to one of the leading causes of contamination: laundry.
Every time you throw a load of laundry into the wash, tiny pieces of plastic shed from these synthetic fabrics, from your polyster pants to a rayon blouse, and float into the water stream. According to the class's research, an estimated 20,000 microplastics can be run through our washers and dryers at any given time. And the effects are profound: "Microplastics in lakes, streams, rivers, or oceans, tend to soak up anything from motor oils to industrial chemicals," says Adam Moench, a senior in the engineering class at Gering High. Fish then ingest these microplastics, we consume the fish and, well, you get the picture. "This is something that needs to be looked at and improved upon on the global level."
Through trial and error—designing components out of PVC pipes, using socks as filters, collecting laundry from classmates to test the system—the students came up with a gravity-fed, three-stage attachable filter to catch these shedded microplastics before they get into our water.
According to the latest studies, even bottled water has yet to completely filter this out.
With their model, these teens became one of the 10 national finalists for Samsung's Solve for Tomorrow contest for the second consecutive year (a first in the contest's eight-year history). The contest, which Gering won in 2017 along with three other schools, urges students to apply their STEAM skillset to improve their local community—but the impact of the washer/dryer filter could reach well beyond Gering.
Today, the technology needed to solve some of the biggest issues facing our environment could be solved right in the Gering High classroom. Although they were not among the top three winners this year, the students' invention won their school $50,000 in Samsung technology. "Our entire room is equipped with the latest technology, [including] 3D printers," says Justin Reinmuth, who teaches the engineering class. "This classroom has become a revolving door for the community to come in and see what can be done with a lot of students and a lot of drive and initiative." Their prototype is now with Samsung NEXT, the company's think tank which will further examine the project's potential.
"The students' innovation to purify water of microplastics is an excellent example of the inspiration behind starting Solve for Tomorrow eight years ago," Ann Woo, Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship at Samsung Electronics America tells us. "We hope by encouraging young people to solve issues in their own communities with STEAM, we will ignite the next generation of ideas and advancements to change our world."
Based on what they learned about their own abilities and the environment over the course of this project, it's unlikely that this will be the last we hear from Gering's students. "Our environment is our world," says Rachel Rawlings, one of the students who presented the project at the Samsung pitch event last month. "I'm going to continue spreading the message that microplastics are an issue, and that we have to keep our environment sustainable for future generations."
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