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A teenager is using fish waste to clean heavy metal pollution

17-year-old Jacqueline Prawira is one of 100 student winners from Schmidt Futures’ young change maker awards. Using natural components derived from fish scales, she developed a bio-solution capable of ridding waterways of heavy metal contamination.

All of a sudden, I’m feeling pretty self-conscious about my teenage years.

17-year-old student Jacqueline Prawira is about to become a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and already she is beginning to pave a career as an important change maker.

Since the seventh grade, she has had a burning desire to help reverse humanity’s damage on the planet. Initially focused on creating a bio-based alternative to plastic, she developed an impressive alternative utilising upscaled fish waste.

She has since discovered, however, that the principles of her work may have a bigger impact elsewhere. The scales of fish contain both collagen and calcium salts which have been found to be ideal for bonding with toxic metals like arsenic, copper, nickel, lead, and mercury.

These properties effectively make her solution a sponge for absorbing contaminants within polluted waterways, so they can be removed. It’s a rare (and unconventional, granted) method of dealing with a stubborn ecological menace.

If you’re wondering how high levels of metal end up in aquatic habitats in the first place, it’s a combination of natural phenomena and human industry. The weathering of rocks and soils, as well as residue from volcanic events all play a big part, but we must take the lion’s share of the blame for the truly bad stuff… again.

Smoke from coal stacks and the drainage of mining operations are the two biggest offenders, and corrupt surrounding freshwater with dangerous and potentially poisonous substances.

Thankfully, Prawira’s experiments boast an impressive efficiency rate at removing them. Her mysterious fish scale solution can absorb up to 82% of heavy metals from water, and that increases to 91% if the treatment is combined with electrolysis.

A kilogram of this material would cost just 23 cents, and reportedly has the capability of cleaning 1,000 litres of water. Compared to the astronomical costs associated with carbon capture projects, this represents serious value for money.

‘It would be a dream come true for my invention to become a reality,’ she says.

As a student with plenty of responsibilities, she won’t be left alone to get the project up and running either.

The Schmidt Futures Rise program, which already awarded Prawira for her work, is committed to providing ongoing mentorship and funding opportunities as burgeoning change makers become more established.

As the CEO, Eric Braverman, states: ‘Our hard problems in science and society are not going to get solved overnight,’ and so additional backing is required way beyond graduation.

‘The most important thing we can do to ensure that people can solve the problems that are important to the world is to get everyone to the table, and then keep them there,’ he says.

We couldn’t agree more Braverman. If you’re keen to see more inspiring work from the next generation of change makers, check out our Thred 100.


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