It's been four years since Boyan Slat first stood on a TED stage and proposed his massive ocean cleanup machine. The Dutch entrepreneur was only 17 at the time and still in high school. But he's since managed to raise $10 million in funding, build a professional team of 50 people, and get actual infrastructure into the water, including a 100-meter prototype that will launch this week.
Slat calls the prototype boom "Boomy McBoomface" because something like "prototype" would have been too boring, he says (a reference to a British research vessel, who's crowdsourced name almost ended up being Boaty McBoatface). It will sit in the North Sea, about 12 miles off the Dutch coast, and allow Slat's team to test for resiliency under harsh conditions. The North Sea regularly produces forces that would be 100-year events in the Pacific, where the full device will eventually be located if everything goes according to plan.
Slat's idea is to create an "artificial coastline" in ocean areas where trash accumulates (like the so-called "Great Pacific Garbage Patch"). The boom is a passive device that uses an ocean's own currents to gather in debris. A conveyor system then lifts trash from within the boom into a central tower, where it's sorted into different types (the plan is to sell the waste to offset operation costs). The prototype—which is 1,000 times smaller than what Slat imagines for the final project—doesn't have the collection station. But he plans to test whether the boom itself is effective. In the next year, his Ocean Cleanup team will throw out biodegradable items, hoping it will envelop whatever is in its way.
"The key questions are structural," Slat says. "Will it hold up in terms of abrasion, fatigue, and other types of damages that can occur? It's a testing platform. If something breaks, we can fix it and learn about the design. We have an iterative philosophy."
Funding for the $1.5 million prototype comes from an anonymous Dutch benefactor, the Dutch company Boskalis (which is doing the mooring work), and the Dutch government. Slat plans a full pilot in the second half of 2017 and a full rollout by 2020—though he will need hundreds of millions of dollars to do that. Aside from crowdfunding, he's also received cash from Mark Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com, and controversial venture capitalist and Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel, who recently named Slat a Thiel Foundation Fellow. (The fellowship is for entrepreneurs who forgo college in favor of starting a business. Slat, a dropout himself, thinks he'll fit in.)
Some marine plastic campaigners have criticized Slat for focusing on visible ocean waste rather than the bigger problem of fragments deep in the water. Others say we should be building upstream solutions (like in rivers). They may be right, in a way. But focusing on one part of the problem doesn't stop other people from focusing on other parts. And we can surely applaud Slat for sticking with his idea. Many 21-year-olds would have given up before now.
He admits to feeling frustrated with the relatively slow progress of the project. But he sounds as enthusiastic as ever. "For an inventor, there's no better feeling in the world than to have an idea, then see it become reality," he says. "Even though it's just a beginning for all the team, it's very exciting for the idea to become tangible."
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