Conventional methods for microplastic detection are very complicated, time-consuming and expensive.
There is no globally standardized detection method for microplastics.
In this blog post, we focus on the
status quo of detection
and our response to it - Wasser 3.0 detect. Wasser 3.0 detect enables two quantum leaps in microplastic detection. What these are and how they play out concretely, is the subject of parts 2, 3 and 4 of our series on microplastic detection.
Basics for further understanding
To frame the challenges of microplastic detection, it is important to consider some aspects related to microplastics and water.
Microplastics - What am I, and how many exactly?
Microplastic particles are highly complex and highly diverse entities. There are around 200 different types of polymers, including well-known representatives such as polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene. These in turn have the most diverse subcategories and are processed into millions of products. In the manufacturing process, specific functionalities and application-related properties can also be changed by mixing other chemicals ("additives") with the polymers. These include highly toxic substances such as plasticizers, water-repellent per- and polyfluorinated compounds or bisphenol-A.
As soon as
plastic particles with a size smaller than 5 mm enter the environment
(air - soil- water), no distinction is made any longer between 200 individual plastic types or products. The
Water is water is water: The crux of sampling and processing
For us at Wasser 3.0, the primary concern is the detection of microplastics in water, which is why we leave out soils, air, and other sites of their occurrence such as the human body here.
Detecting microplastics in water means being confronted with these factors, among others:
Waters are very different. Drinking water, groundwater, surface water, seawater, process water - all of these waters have highly diverse properties and components.
Waters are contaminated with a variety of different (micro)pollutants. The water cycle is a highly interconnected system that links civilization in general, industrial mass production, and our ecosystems worldwide in myriad ways.
Probably the biggest challenge in detecting microplastics is distinguishing microplastics from natural particles.
This means: On one microplastic particle in the water sample can come thousands, sometimes millions of natural particles. These are, like microplastics, often based on carbon and sometimes also polymers. A distinction is anything but simple.
Preparing water samples for detection is an extremely time-consuming process that is highly prone to mistakes and contaminations. According to current protocol, we need between 3 and 9 days for sample preparation using conventional detection methods.
Why we need an
easy-to-use, fast and cost-effective detection method
Conventional methods of
microplastic detection are expensive, complicated and time-consuming
. In particular, they are not suitable for making continuous and accurate analysis of pollution situations in water bodies or processes of (waste)water purification.
As we will see in the context of our blog posts on microplastic detection, this is a problem from many points of view. It presented us with this specific one some time ago:
With the milestones we reached in the development of Wasser 3.0 PE-X®, one thing became clear to us very quickly: We need a new method and/or tool for
detecting microplastic concentrations in waters
. Only in this way will we be able to
continuously and efficiently align and optimize our materials, processes and technologies
State of art
Conventionally used methods and instruments for field monitorings and laboratory investigations of
microplastic pollution do not meet our requirements, especially with regard to the following reasons:
Microscopes used to visually identify microplastics have low reliability, especially for small, transparent and/or fibrous particles. This can lead to an over- or underestimation of actual contamination situations.
Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) or Raman spectroscopy with microscope used for chemical identification of microplastics require expensive instrumentation, complex setups, and are time consuming.
Some detection methods take a singular approach to specific polymers. By this partial view of the overall situation, much is lost, which should absolutely be detected under the aspect of ecological relevance and analytical accuracy.
Sample preparations are highly prone to error. With each time a water sample is taken in hand, it is exposed to potential contamination by microplastics. Why? Because microplastics are everywhere: In the air, in the water, on lab benches, in glassware, in analytical instruments. The number of sample preparation steps, the type of environment (clean room vs.`normal' lab), and clothing can be
a potential source of microplastics`
These facts make detection a highly sensitive issue. Which is why all values must be evaluated with extreme care and, above all, caution.
The end of the blind flight
detection methods and their limitations in the field of microplastics
lead to the fact that
municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants
worldwide operate virtually in 'blind flight'. Waiting between one and four weeks for analytical results, investing large amounts of money or having unreliable data became increasingly unacceptable and frustrating for us. Our goal is to have highly efficient analysis and reproducible and traceable elimination rates in continuously running systems with changing contamination situations.
Therefore, we defined the criteria for our
'ideal' detection of microplastics in waters
with these three key criteria: easy to use - fast - cost-effective. In the next part of our detection series, we will answer the question why it is high time for a standardized detection method for microplastics. Wasser 3.0 detect was born.
More behind-the-scenes insights into Wasser 3.0 detect will be available in the next blog. If you don't want to wait, check out our publications for more scientific information.
To ensure that our work continues full steam ahead, we are looking for sponsors in this area. Donations are also very welcome. If you would like to support us, you can find some ways here or contactus directly.
Copyright: Dyer Island Conservation Trust/Marine Dynamics