Democratizing data to solve ocean plastic pollution and biodiversity loss
A Victoria-based company is building innovative marine technology to fill data gaps on microplastics and empower solutions to pollution and biodiversity loss in our oceans.
Co-founded in 2018 by marine scientist, engineer and innovation catalyst Ethan Edson and biotech entrepreneur Dr. Dean Wenham, Ocean Diagnostics aims to break barriers for scientists and citizens to study microplastics and biodiversity to influence global change.
“Microplastics are integrated into every part of the ecosystem and even our human bodies,” says Ethan in a conversation with COAST. “There’s an imminent need to quantify microplastic pollution, both in the marine and terrestrial environments, but we need better tools available for researchers, scientists, and environmental firms to understand the problem.”
An important component of their work is their mission to democratize data through the creation of tools that can be used by community scientists as well as in research applications.
“We found traditional methods of microplastic sampling and biodiversity assessment often require large research vessels or expensive equipment that’s really difficult to deploy off of a small boat,” Ethan says. “If you don’t have access to that type of infrastructure, it’s hard to do that kind of research. Since we need an ‘all hands on deck’ approach in collecting the data needed to move the needle on solving these global ocean problems, we set out to design enabling and easy-to-deploy products so ordinary community members, as well as research scientists, can collect standardized, reliable data.”
Probing the depths in search of vital information
Ocean Diagnostics’ newest microplastics analysis device is called Saturna. A small, portable, and easy to use research tool for the field, Saturna is an AI-based imaging system coupled with a Progressive Web Application (PWA) that can rapidly scan collected particles and extract important information about the physical properties of the microplastic particles present in the sample, while saving hours of manual measurement time for the end user.
“Saturna can rapidly characterize microplastic particles so we can get a suite of size parameters, dimensions and color metrics while also separating particles into common categories,” notes Ethan. “This data is important for understanding where these microplastics are coming from and how they ended up where they were collected. We can learn further information about their size and category; for instance, are they small lines from a fishing net, films from consumer plastic packaging, or styrofoam from local docks and buoys?”
Saturna was recently used in a pilot study in partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada. Volunteers collected samples using a scientific protocol from around Victoria beaches over the course of 6 months and Saturna was used to rapidly characterize the particles that were found at each site.
“We were able to validate our technology and create a really robust dataset on microplastic pollution here in Victoria,” says Ethan. “We found that more than 80% of the plastics on our local beaches were polystyrene foam (Styrofoam), mostly deriving from local sources in close proximity to the beach. It brings home the fact that, contrary to what people may often think, a lot of our local ocean plastic pollution comes from local sources – aging infrastructure like legacy docks and fishing buoys and other things made from UV-degraded foams. This shows me we can have a direct tangible impact on local pollution by focusing on some of the local sources of this material along the coast. Without this preliminary data, it can be paralyzing to know where to start.”
Ocean Diagnostics has also recently released a microplastics depth sampler called Ascension. Light, portable and easily deployable from a small vessel by one or two people, it’s a tethered vertical profiling instrument designed to collect filtered microplastic samples down to 400 meters below the ocean’s surface. “Ascension removes the barrier of needing a large research vessel or industrial deployment equipment to collect samples in the water column,” Ethan says.
Studies show that 99% of ocean plastic is ‘missing,’ that is not floating at the surface and unaccounted for, and there is little understanding of the vertical distribution of the problem through the water column. The team at Ocean Diagnostics hopes that reducing the barriers to sampling will help to shed light on this data gap and further our understanding of microplastic distribution in our water systems.
Now, having just brought Ascension to market, Ocean Diagnostics has modified the tool for biodiversity assessment with its new product extension, Ascension eDNA. Used to collect environmental DNA (eDNA) samples in situ, the sampler can collect samples to track and monitor the different organisms that inhabit an ecosystem.
“We use very small pore size filters to collect residual DNA that is naturally shed by animals and organisms as they inhabit a water system, and have the filters analyzed with a partner to help us understand the species biodiversity that exists where the filter was collected,” says Ethan.
“eDNA is a powerful emerging tool to non-invasively understand ecosystem health, and we are thrilled to be working with our first partners on this application right now. We see eDNA as an increasingly important tool for measuring and assessing biodiversity loss, endangered species, and invasive species and are excited to solve some of the most common sampling challenges for our partners with Ascension’s newest capabilities.”
Collecting and analyzing data on the ocean, in real time
What Ethan describes as the “holy grail” of projects for Ocean Diagnostics, and one they’ve been working on since the company launched, is their real-time sensor for microplastic particles. Rather than having to collect samples and bring them back to the lab for analysis, this is an instrument that could be deployed directly on location and give immediate data about the concentration and the types of microplastic particles that are freely suspended in the water column.
“This is a game changer for things like monitoring programs, where we are trying to understand how plastic pollution changes over time,” Ethan says. “Putting a monitoring program in place allows us to make upstream changes, like banning certain plastic products or fixing dock infrastructures, and then assess over time if the downstream plastic levels are decreasing, staying the same, or increasing. This approach can put quantifiable data behind our upstream solutions to determine their efficacy and allow us to adapt accordingly.”
Ocean Diagnostics is testing phase two of the sensor project through the Innovative Solutions Canada program, with the aim of commercializing the product within the next two years.
The company is also developing a commercial service lab, through which they can analyze microplastic samples taken using their own and other technologies, and for which they’re creating robust standardized protocols and acquiring instrumentation.
“There has been a lack of standardization and high-throughput protocols available for microplastics analysis to date,” says Ethan. “To solve this challenge, we have established a ‘Center of Excellence’ for microplastics analysis, whereby we can ensure reproducible, quality methods and protocols to meet the growing demands and requirements of environmental monitoring programs, the municipal wastewater and drinking water industry, and other domestic and international government programs.”
Ethan notes there are a lot of inherent challenges when you are a startup creating a new market in an emerging industry. “From coast to coast, the blue economy is slowly revealing new opportunities, though it’s still so new. We are going one step further by aiming to create new standard products and services in a largely unregulated environmental market.”
Microplastic pollution, for instance, is only now just starting to be regulated in certain parts of the world, like California, which has just recently mandated microplastics monitoring in drinking water for a large number of municipalities in the state.
“We know that further regulation lies ahead – and that regulation will be closely monitored as we step up and create the necessary standardized tools and methods needed to help solve this global problem. As Canada begins to further regulate microplastics, we’ll be ready to help service municipalities, researchers and other stakeholders. In addition, we’ll be continually working to ensure that our tools are adapting to the evolving needs of our customers.”
Funding partners have been and will continue to be an essential component of their success, and Ethan points to those like Schmidt Marine Technology Partners and the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), who’ve helped to fund initial R&D as Ocean Diagnostics has built out their prototypes.
“We’re always looking for partners to help grow our programs and multiply the impact of the technologies that we’re building. If anyone aligns with our mission and vision and sees value in helping us to scale up technology and method development to address plastic pollution and biodiversity loss, we would love to talk further.”