A MOUNTSHANNON man’s innovative start-up company is funding ground-breaking research on marine microplastics, with a view to proving how prevalent the issue is.
Dr Alvin Orbaek White, who works at Swansea University, has pioneered a technology that changes waste plastic into valuable compounds for the energy industries, reducing plastics pollution in the process. The research will be instrumental in addressing the global transition to more efficient, cleaner energy resources and providing a new life for waste plastics, keeping them out of land and sea.
Dr Orbaek White’s company TrimTabs is supporting research currently underway in Barcelona where artist and boat builder Mark Reddan is working with marine scientists to look at how plastics are entering the food chain.
“Part of what we want to do is to get our technology out of the lab and addressing the issue of microplastics which are in everything from our tea to our washing machines,” Dr Orbaek White said. “There’s an annual currach festival in Barcelona, which is now on hold because of Covid. I’ve known Mark for a few years and when we got talking about the problem that microplastics are posing for marine life, TrimTabs decided to fund and sponsor a project that’s going to highlight the scale of this issue and the need to take action.”
Currently, thanks to funding from TrimTabs, Mark is working with marine biologists to examine how much microplastics are being ingested by fish. “Basically, for the last two weeks, they’ve been going out currach fishing and examining what’s in the fish guts,” explained Dr Orbaek White. “They’re filming what they’re doing and the aim is to show the reality of microplastics and also the fact that this kind of scientific work is something that almost anyone can do. It folds into the idea of public science, which is one of the areas I’m interested in. This is something that we hope will encourage citizen scientistic, because it doesn’t involve complex or costly equipment.”
The initiative also underlines the fact that alternative uses must be found for plastics in order to take them out of the environment. “The really big message is that you can collect plastic waste, but if you put it back in the bin, it could still easily end up back in the sea,” Dr Orbaek White explained. “We need to close the loop. If we consider waste plastic as a resource and look at how the hydrogen and carbon can converted into material to conduct electricity, for example, that closes the loop. Nowadays, nanotubes derived from plastics can be used in everything from flatscreen TVs to folding phone screens.”
Dr Orbaek White is a past pupil of Waldorf Steiner School in Tuamgraney and Scariff Community College. His college years were spent at NUI Galway where he undertook his Bachelor’s degree, before obtaining a PhD at Rice University in Huston, Texas. His first scientific publication elaborated on the conversion of black plastic material that he purchased in a local supermarket. Dr Orbaek White later founded TrimTabs, an engineering firm creating technology solutions for positive global impact.
Today, Dr Orbaek White’s vision is to advance global energy sustainability by producing long range electricity transmission materials from waste plastics.
A senior lecturer in Chemical Engineering, Dr Orbaek White, who was recruited to Wales from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as part of the Wales Rising Star program as a Sêr Cymru II Fellow, is leading the research group at the Energy Safety Research Institute in Swansea University.