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Ocean Cleaning Robots

Let them eat dirt
  [vote for,

Perhaps you have heard the story about the enormous mass of plastic dirt that has accumulated in the Pacific Ocean.

There was a reportage about this recently, and quite honestly, I was disgusted, then ashamed. We are just stupid animals, polluting our environment, and then we act as if we don't know about it [see pic].

You know the problem: large numbers of aquatic animals and birds die because of this plastic pollution. Plastic can remain intact (in the form of "mermaid tears") for hundreds of years. It doesn't biodegrade.

Now we must tackle the problem at the roots (scrap plastic bags, replace with reusable cotton; stop dumping the plastic; educate people and youth, etc...).

But in the meantime, we must clean up the ocean. A suggestion on how to do this.

1. We know more or less where and how the plastic garbage accumulates; the currents in the Pacific take it along and push it into "dead", "immobile" zones [see interactive map].

2. So we send out autonomously powered, solar robots out there, that capture the plastic trash.

3. The device consists of the following tools: solar panels and batteries to power the ocean-bot; and a compression tool to make big cubes out of the plastic trash.

4. We steer and track the bot via GPS, into the zones we know are polluted; we send an army of these relatively cheap robots; the currents do a lot of work for us.

5. When the bot is set to capture trash, it sends out a screaming noise, so as to chase any animals away when it locates a big amount of garbage; we don't want to kill more animals than is already the case.

6. Once the bot has captured enough trash, it squeezes it into a big cube (perhaps apply some heat to make it strong enough so it doesn't disintegrate); the robot also embeds a simple tracking device into the cube, so we can pick it up later.

7. The advantage of the big cube is that it floats, but cannot kill animals.

8. The tracking device inside the cube then allows us to organise a human expedition to clean up the dirt. We can easily locate the cubes (the tracking device calculates the best route) and pick them up.

That's it.

We then ship the trash to the shore and we force the polluter to pay for this operation. That will teach us a lesson.

The poor animals. A baby-Albatros with its stomach full of plastic - we are so cruel [see pic].

django, Apr 23 2008

(??) Plastic zone of death http://www.helixcha...20ocean%20trash.jpg
We are filthy beings [django, Apr 23 2008]

Baby Albatros full of plastic http://downtothesea...ch-with-plastic.jpg
Stomach contents - we are cruel. [django, Apr 23 2008]

(?) We killed this bird http://www.fakeplas...ges/dead_bird_1.jpg
This is no joke. [django, Apr 23 2008]

(?) Interactive map of ocean journey taken by trash http://oceans.green...pollution_animation
We can track it, more or less; this is where we put the robots [django, Apr 23 2008]

(?) World's most polluted river http://www.appletreeblog.com/?p=1933
Here's an ideal test site. [marklar, Apr 24 2008]

10 Million TONS Of Trash http://www.inl.co.n...lasticjunkyard.html
A gift for the kids. [TIB, Apr 26 2008]

A use for the cubes Garbageland
[Voice, Sep 10 2008]

Thermal depolymerization http://en.wikipedia...al_depolymerization
Or, just turn it to oil [Voice, Sep 10 2008]

New sailing ship designs could engage wind power in the task http://bmworaclerac...x.html?track.refer=
Wind could work with solar to sail to, then tow or compress the trash [Sunstone, Feb 12 2010]

(?) Lasers could assist in locating the floating trash http://www.neatorobotics.com/
[Sunstone, Feb 12 2010]


       Maybe we could compress the trash into fake icebergs. [+]
AbsintheWithoutLeave, Apr 23 2008

       "it sends out a screaming noise, so as to chase any animals away" - won't work on jellyfish, kelp and a whole bunch of other sealife.   

       I'll vote for any idea that helps clean up the garbage we strew about the world, but I think the real key (as noted by others) is to come up with an organism that digests plastic.   

       Over and above the large plastic objects that kills large animals, the top three meters of the ocean contain a truly staggering amount of plastic dust, the final residuum of all that trash, as it is ground up by normal ocean processes.   

       (The downside is that once that organism develops, we will see some truly massive ocean blooms, and consequent die-offs.)
DrCurry, Apr 23 2008

       I'm all for cleaning it up, but I've read some scary fiction about what happens when plastic eating organisms spread out - goodbye civilization as we know it.
normzone, Apr 23 2008

       I'm all for cleaning the ocean, but you lost me when you take plastic from the bottom of the ocean, compress it and then it floats. Or was this floating debris?   

       Can this be recycled or made into reefs?
MisterQED, Apr 23 2008

       MisterQED, plastic floats. That's precisely the entire problem. If it sank to the ocean, nobody would care!
django, Apr 23 2008

       normzone: we already have wood and steel-eating organisms (well, a steel-eating mechanism, rust), and we survived the Wood and Iron Ages quite handily. Our desktops won't suddenly fall apart, any more than our houses suddenly fall apart when they get dry rot. But all that plastic in the wild will get reabsorbed into the biostream in a matter of decades.
DrCurry, Apr 23 2008

       Oh. I think that a matter of decades would be far too slow a pace.   

       I was envisioning something akin to the piece of fiction I read, where the plastic eating critters could take the insulation off a wire in a matter of days.
normzone, Apr 23 2008

       Your robot would probably be in a form of two pontooned rectangular solar panel that is reversible, no matter what side it is flipped (anticipating big waves flipping the craft). Each pontoons have half-submerged propellers, splashing to ward of turtles and the like that would be snagged along with the trash. The trash would then be bunched up by four floating auger-like rotating hooks that are projecting near the ends of the pontoons at the inner sides such that they radiate towards the center of the craft. Plastics would be conveyed towards the middle and can then be pressed with clamping pads located at the middle of the panel. The robots would then converge and lump together the trash they individually processed. These robots spread out, then converged to an area signalled by one of them that had scanned a bigger pile of floating trash.   

       Are there any other ideas to make this a reality?
rotary, Apr 23 2008

       Even more insane with today's oil prices. We should mine it - it's about as energetic as petroleum.
james_what, Apr 23 2008

       "A trash carpet ... the size of Texas" (from the first link).   

       I think we're going to need a bigger boat.   

       The robots themselves could be reasonably small, but big enough to carry/tow the big chunks of rubbish like pallets and barrels. Sealed cargo containers would be good to store the rubbish in rather than compressing it, then it can easily be picked up by a cargo ship, perhaps even on its way somewhere else (assuming it had a crane or there was a crane floating with the containers). Alternatively they could be strung together and towed by a tug.
marklar, Apr 24 2008

       Thanks for the link [marklar].
What a nasty, lazy, stupid species we are.
Have a completely biodegradable bun [+]
coprocephalous, Apr 24 2008

       Perhaps you have heard the story about the enormous mass of Ocean Cleaning Robots that have accumulated in the Pacific Ocean.
Amos Kito, Apr 24 2008

       I know, [Amos Kito]. They sank and has already becoming coral reefs.
rotary, Apr 24 2008

       // What a nasty, lazy, stupid species we are //   

       Yes, you are, aren't you ? And you smell bad, and your Mother dresses you funny.
8th of 7, Apr 24 2008

       The danger is that ships / boats may hit the cubes and sink as a result, causing even more pollution.
gillgren, Apr 24 2008

       Let me solve this problem for you all. And for the baby albatrosses yet to be born. 1: Seagulls are smart. 2: Seagulls have good vision. 3: Seagulls like food.   

       A large ship is fitted with a kibble dispenser. A flock of seagulls is installed aboard. These seagulls are trained to find a plastic object and put it in the hopper. On performing this action a kibble appears in the place of the plastic.   

       Once trained, take the ship out to the plastic zone in the pacific and moor it there. The birds will fan out, seeking plastic to put in the hopper. Periodically, supply ships will come out to cart away the plastic and other stuff, and refill the kibble reservoir.   

       This ship would be permanent. The birds would breed on deck and new generation of plastic hunters would arise. Baby albatrosses would have to satisfy their plastic jones elsewhere.
bungston, Apr 25 2008

       bun [django], and a symbolic bun for [bungston] - but I also like [james_what]'s point. Why not take a dilapidated cargo ship/tanker, install a plasma gasification plant and syngas storage, and sit in the midocean waste-streams hoovering it all up?
navel-gazer, Apr 25 2008

       all the photos of this texas-sized mat of plastic i've seen so far have been like pictures of yeti; you're not really sure what you are looking at.   

       theoretically, it's very ground down, too ground down to be picked up by birds, and likewise too dispersed to be hoovered by some mechanical filter. probably just suck up dolphins.   

       dolphin free recycled plastic, anyone?
mylodon, Apr 25 2008

       [bungston], [james_what] and [navel-gazer], good ideas.   

       I thougth about powering the robots with the trash, but mind you it's plastic; that means lots of CO2 emissions if you incinerate it.   

       On the other hand, in the first picture, you see that there's quite a bit of biomass attached to the plastic (coconuts?, seaweed, maybe carcasses of animals). This is 'renewable', or at least a bit 'carbon neutral'. And so this biomass could 'offset' the emissions from the burning of the plastic, perhaps.   

       But then, [mylodon] points out that most of this plastic could be very tiny, ground down. And that would limit the amount of biomass trapped by it.   

       So I'm not sure.
django, Apr 25 2008

       What we need is not a big boat to contain this stuff, but a skimmer net that in some method would be prevented from interfering with the oceanlife in too great a fashion. How to do that I'm not certain.   

       'About as energetic as petroleum...' Yeah, but have you been anywhere near burning plastic before?
RayfordSteele, Apr 25 2008

       Could something like a floating photo emulsion, (I think that's the right word), which hardens when subjected to UV light, be introduced into the water at night where it would spread across the surface in and around all the debris?
Come morning the emulsion would harden binding the plastic into a semi-solid sheet which can be reeled in.

       If a nuclear weapon were set off over the plastic, perhaps it would fuse it into a sheet that would be easy to remove, Given the Texas-size issue, multiple smaller bumbs may be in order.
bungston, Apr 25 2008

       [django]: wow+... you've feaked me out! i was just about to post this idea, virtually identical to yours in every respect (even the plastic-block pooping method). guess it's just the logical solution or maybe we think alike as per your previous posts. mine included everything from yours, plus a few more independent steps. see link for my inspiration.   

       the stumbling block for me - and hence my delay - was a method of separating the tiny beads of plastic from anything biological. in some areas the plastic is far more abundant than the phytoplankton! one method that came to mind was to sift using density. the plastic is less dense than anything biological and will therefore be separable. for the very small stuff, i was thinking that an electrostatic sorter may work, but just have no idea how - or what damage it would cause to biological matter.   

       i envisioned a network of autonomous stationary platforms with massive filtration capacity, combined with roving units for collecting larger debris. large factory ships would dock with the platforms, collecting plastic and converting it directly to oil (using thermal depolymerization). this method would provide all the necessary energy to run itself, and still have an abundance of oil left over for transport to land. this oil would then be used to displace conventional oil. sad to transfer the carbon into the atmosphere so rapidly, but until we change our oil-munching ways i see no other way.   

       i imagine this idea is inevitable given the rising cost to mine oil.
TIB, Apr 26 2008

       I think the biodegradable materials can be effectively broken down by the use of engineered microorganisms to produce bio-gas, bio-oil and solids for fertilizers.
rotary, Apr 26 2008

       [rotary] - maybe, but what happens to the gas, oil, and fertiliser when the microbe is done? [django] - true, incineration's inefficient and polluting. Plasma gasification, on the other hand, can have nil CO2 emissions - the plastic would be reduced to mineral slag and syngas (CO+H). On a ship (which could perhaps power the gathering robots), a fraction of the latter could be used to power the engines, and the remainder compressed and transported. The H is an obvious fuel; the CO could be put into carbon sinks or scrubbed.
navel-gazer, Apr 26 2008

       Consider this: a very large floating platform. This would be the size of several city blocks, and would extend for several more blocks at about 6 feet underwater. It would float by virtue of many plastic drums willed with foam.   

       This thing would be set loose in the dead zone. The center has soil. Mangroves grow on it, and on the subsurface part. As plastic (as well as all the other floating biologic material, like grass) bumps into it, it tangles in the mangroves and stays. Gradually the floating island increases in size. Birds roost on it. Fish live beneath it. There is a small hut in the center of it, for django.
bungston, Apr 27 2008

       [RayfordSteele] That would be one stinky fire. Power stations with scrubbing gear could probably do a better job of it though. We really have to find a way of dealing with the stuff though, and exponential oil pricing might just be the trigger.
james_what, Apr 27 2008

       [TIB] thanks for the link. Many types of plastic have a heating value equivalent to heating oil. So let's say a ton equals a ton of crude oil.   

       10 million tons of plastic at today's oil prices (US$120 pb) equals a value of $8.7 billion. Not bad.
django, Apr 27 2008

       What if we will just employ the robots to cover such Texas-sized floating trash with new Flexible Plastic Solar Panels? They would just weave the Plastic Solar Strips above those ground-down plastic wastes that would serve as flotation material. Now, we're talking MEGA potential here.
rotary, May 02 2008

       Hey - Why are we still in Other:General?
normzone, May 02 2008

       If the plastic was burned at a high temp. like, say 2000 degrees, the dioxin and nasty stuff might break down, but it would still emit co2 and carbon monoxide, as well as whatever colors and characters the plastic, but, by using some of it as fuel, a steam engine could be chewing up lots more plastic and using the heat of the exhaust to remelt the plastic into floating containers of itself.
plynthe, May 21 2008

       Hey [normzone], been reading Andromeda Strain a bit too much?   

       Vintage Chrichton at it's best.
Custardguts, May 21 2008

       [Custardguts], no, it's been decades since I went there, I had to google/wiki to refresh the memory.   

       When I posted the above, I tried to find reference to the book I was thinking of, but was unsuccessful.   

       The danger was similar. Heaven help us if we ever lose control of such a tool. Not that I would mind seeing a world with a substitute for plastics, but the transition would be hell.
normzone, May 21 2008

       //Not that I would mind seeing a world with a substitute for plastics, but the transition would be hell.//   

       Plastic's been around (in quantity) since what... the 1930's ? That's only 80 years, and offhand I can't think of anything made of plastic that either wasn't made without plastic before, or couldn't be made without plastic, now, out of more environmentally friendly and/or recyclable materiel.
FlyingToaster, May 21 2008

       Those floating plastic wastes are effectively and safely transformed into energy by the upcoming new technology called plasma gasification power plant.
rotary, May 21 2008

       The transition back to cloth-covered wires will be interesting. Food packaging will change your life. Medical supplies? Portable low-weight containers.Windows. Running shoes. Ad nauseum.
normzone, May 21 2008

       //cloth-covered wires// with wax sealant... so what.
//food packaging// is 90pct of the waste that I personally can't recycle... "bulk barns" can take care of most of that.
//medical supplies// umm, you mean like aspirin bottles ? glass syringes that need to be washed/autoclaved ?
//portable low-weight containers// carbon-fiber just off the top of my head; but how many milk-crates get thrown away ? most just get stolen and used.
//windows// O_o hmm gee now that's a toughie
//running shoes// yeah what a great loss... $200.00 running shoes made in 3rd world countries for $0.03
FlyingToaster, May 21 2008

       I thought we were all darwinists here? Why not just wait for the evolution of life-forms that feed on polymers?
MikeD, May 22 2008

       One key problem, as per Chrichton's book, is that the chemical bonds present in plastic are very similar, and even the same, as bonds present in biological material. Ie whatever mechanism the bacteria use to break down the plastic, would be equally effective (or not far from it) in attacking tissue, or some tissue types at least. IIRC that was one of the key issues in the plot. I don't have the chemistry to be sure as to how realistic this risk really is.   

       Cloth covered wax-sealed cables would be fascinating. To watch, I mean.
Custardguts, Sep 10 2008

       I know how to use the garbage (linkie)
Voice, Sep 10 2008

       Whoa! Look at that plastic! Think of the cash that could be made in mining it...   

       To mine it, perhaps a seive cold do the trick, allowing the water to pass but trapping the much larger plastic? Alternatively, the water could be evaporated, leaving behind a plastic residue, which would be collected. This would offer sea life the chance to get off before the water is gone.   

       I must say, though, I like the Island idea.
Selky, Aug 17 2009

       [+] we need more ideas like this one...
xandram, Jan 20 2012

       I had an idea about skeining the debris from the Pacific Gyre using filtration barges and then 'freezing' it into big blocks using cyanoacrylate for easy transport and off- loading, but I couldn't figure out how to keep little sea critters from getting trapped in there, so I never posted it. Maybe I should revisit the concept.
Alterother, Jan 21 2012

       erm, this isn't actually a solution, but the problem will probably solve itself. lots of energy in plastic and sooner or later evolution will find some creature that can eat it.   

       Some actual solutions   

       1) If you want to keep sea life away, maybe electric shocks? Not fun for the sea-life but better than ending up in block of plastic.   

       2) Could we use the shredded plastic in some kind of fabber out there and it could make the next plastic consuming machine?
not_morrison_rm, Jan 22 2012

       Possibly. I kind of figured on bringing the blocks home and shredding them to make the usual recycled-plastic products. Not a bad idea about the electric critter-clearer. With the right adjustments, it might double as a plastic attractor.   

       Also, I'm not sure if CA will solidify in salt water. I don't see why it wouldn't, but I'm not a chemist. Maybe if I get positive results from a kitchen-counter test, I'll write this idea up...
Alterother, Jan 22 2012

       //1) If you want to keep sea life away, maybe electric shocks?//   

       In retrospect I'm now thinking more Tesla organ style..   

       you can charge eco-tourists to watch the sound and light show,and they can eat the freshly cooked fish (especially if you don't tell them how they ended up cooked).   

       It's a win-win, I tell you!
not_morrison_rm, Jan 22 2012


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