The logic was sound.
It stands to reason that if you need to complete a research project to get your college diploma anyway, you might as well spend your time working on something with real-world implications. Right?
An interdisciplinary team of Georgia Tech students thought so, turning its capstone design into River Recon, a microplastic detection device that aims to revolutionize the way water pollution is tracked.
ASCE recognized the team of Matthew Falcone, Erin Kowalsky, Timothy Purvis and Kaylyn Sinisgalli with the Grand Challenge Award (and $5,000 prize) at the 2020 Innovation Contest during the ASCE 2020 Convention in October.
“I think Georgia Tech does a good job of encouraging students to shoot for the impossible,” Purvis said. “And if you hit an intermediate goal along the way, then that is still more than you would have done before.”
Developed as part of the ASCE Grand Challenge, the ASCE Innovation Contest celebrated its fifth year by tweaking the format and inviting finalists to showcase their innovations before an international audience through a virtual competition during the Convention.
River Recon is a sensor that uses autofluorescence to detect potentially dangerous microplastics in water supplies.
“The fluorescence causes a light distortion in the plastic particles that you can detect and help indicate the presence of microplastics,” Kowalsky said. “Once we decided on fluorescence as our sensor technology, we knew we could adapt this method to be able to perform sample testing in-situ.”
River Recon is potentially less expensive and less labor-intensive than the current industry standard method of collecting samples in a research boat and then soaking that sample in an acid bath for as long as 48 hours.
That’s not to say it was an instantaneous discovery for the team, though. Innovative outcomes may appear almost magical, but really are built upon hours and hours of work – and failure.
“When we were doing preliminary testing, we were way off,” Kowalsky said. “We’d chosen a wavelength from the literature review that we thought was going to work. And we were shining the lights at these samples, and we were like, ‘We can’t see anything! What is wrong? What’s going on?’
“Eventually we found one plastic fiber that was fluorescing, but at the wrong emission. So, we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to figure it out!’”
Purvis had worked with fluorescence as a detection agent for a different project, and the group remained confident the same concepts could translate to microplastics. The breakthrough finally came when they used pure plastics as a control sample to work back from. They found the right wavelength from there, and River Recon was born.
“We had a lot of support along the way,” Kowalsky said. “Our professors really understood there was a chance that what we were trying to build wasn’t going to work. And I think that really helped us move forward. We knew that failing was possible, which allowed us to try anyway.”
The team, now splintered by COVID-19 closures and various graduate school plans, is in the process of filing a provisional patent for their innovation. The project got them school credit, but true to the original ambition, they plan to continue working on River Recon even beyond any syllabus.
“It’s not a graded project anymore. But we’re all genuinely interested,” Purvis said. “There’s no ulterior motive. We’re all invested, because it’s an interesting problem that we feel like we can make a difference toward solving.”