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This 20-Year-Old Inventor Said He Could Clean Up The Ocean—Now He's Really Doing It

The giant ocean trash cleanup machine will begin its work in 2016.

[All Images: via The Ocean Cleanup]

Boyan Slat first proposed his giant marine cleanup machine three years ago when he was just 17 years old. During a TED talk, he sketched a vision for a massive floating boom that would collect trash using the ocean's own currents.

The talk has now been viewed almost 2 million times, and Slat is a minor celebrity in his native Holland. But most remarkably, he's actually followed through on the project. While some would be happy with all the attention, Slat, still only 20, is getting serious about delivery, doing the painstaking work of building a team, testing feasibility, and trialling the machine in the wild.

Co.Exist spoke with him last year when The Ocean Cleanup, Slat's company, had just released a feasibility study and was starting a crowdfunding campaign (it raised more than $2 million). Since then, it's completed scale-model tests and organized a marine trash expedition that will take place this summer. Slat says there's a need to understand the full extent of the trash in the Pacific before he puts a final product in the water.

"Doing the feasibility last year, we discovered there is a lot of uncertainty about the problem itself. And if you want to solve a problem, it's important to know what the problem is," he says. If, for example, there's more trash in the water than commonly thought, that could affect the project's economics, which is based on selling some of the waste for recycling or energy generation.

There are various estimates for the amount of trash in the oceans (as we've written before). But little that's conclusive: Slat complains that much of the data is out-of-date or non-specific. The expedition will employ up to 50 boats to gather samples as they travel from Hawaii to the California coast. Most of the vessels will be on the return leg of the Transpacific Yacht Race. "We'll be taking more measurements in three weeks than in the past 40 years combined," Slat says. "It will be the largest ocean research project in history."

Ocean Cleanup is also preparing a larger ocean trial. In 2016, it will test a 2,000 meter boom near the island of Tsushima, between Japan and South Korea. Up to 30,000 cubic meters of trash a year washes up on Tsushima's coastline, and the island hopes to reduce the cost of clean-up, which is now about $5 million a year. "They're hoping it will save them some cost and effort. For us, that's a secondary goal though. We want to test the durability of the barriers over time," Slat says.

The trial will be big, but nothing approaching the scale of the final vision, which could be many miles long. Also the Japan-South Korea waters are only 50 to 100 meters deep, while final deployment could be at depths of 4,500 meters. That's likely to be a big challenge, as the boom needs to be fixed to the floor and stay there.

Slat says the biggest hurdles he faces are not just technological, though. They're more in the day-to-day management of the project. He's constantly having to make personnel calls and "do all the things you did not intend to do when you started," he says (including talking to reporters).

"It's a challenge to find 'A class' people and form a team," he adds. "You need people who enjoy working up against technological boundaries and get energy from that, instead of being demotivated by it. Hopefully, there will be a point pretty soon where there's just the final problem we're working on, and we can start with the whole operational aspect. But we're not quite there yet."