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Scientist develops biomimetic concept inspired by fish to tackle microplastic problem — and it starts with our laundry machines

"This new technology could be integrated into production chains quickly and inexpensively."

"This new technology could be integrated into production chains quickly and inexpensively."

Photo Credit: iStock

Ongoing, fish-inspired research from Germany's University of Bonn could soon make our washing machines more planet-friendly. 

Professor Alexander Blanke's lab work has been awarded more than $161,000 from the European Research Council to prove that his microplastic filter concept for washers can be scaled for commercial use. Initial findings suggest that pollution from the problematic tiny plastic particles in our laundry could be reduced by 80% thanks to the gill-like sieves. 

Astoundingly, the whole innovation, dubbed SuspensionFlow, is based on natural filters inside fish that allow them to separate food from water as they swim. The latest funding award builds on $1.62 million in research started in 2017, according to a Bonn press release. 

"Filter feeding fish have a so-called 'gill raker system' in their mouths that is specially adapted to filtering plankton," Leandra Hamann, who helped with the research, said in the statement. In-depth measurements and 3-D models were used in the analysis. 

A photo shared by Bonn of the natural fish filter on which the project is based shows a complex network of tines inside the fish's mouth. It could easily be the inspiration for an alien costume design in the next science-fiction thriller. 

For now, the biomimicry project could be the answer to our earthbound plastic pollution problem. 

"We were able to show that the filtration principle could also work in a technical context," Hamann said

Microplastics are prolific bits of pollution that have invaded our bodies — found in our blood and even placentas

PBS reported that washing machines are one of the biggest sources because our clothes are made from plastic microfibers that fall off our garments during cleaning. One load can contain millions of plastic particles. 

Last year, scientists urged European Union leaders to mandate new washing machines to be outfitted with filters to help collect the pollution. They think adding filters to individual machines is the best way to catch as many of the particulates as possible, per a Forbes story. 

Blanke's research might provide the solution. 

"Our microplastic filter could be installed in every household washing machine. Moreover, this new technology could be integrated into production chains quickly and inexpensively," he said in the Bonn summary. 

Biomimicry is a technique already used successfully for architecture and even battery tech, utilizing nature's hacks to improve our lives. Preventing plastic pollution might be among the innovations with the biggest impact. In 2023, the Washington Post reported that there are 170 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, not counting the microplastics. 

Avoiding plastic use to begin with is a great way to keep the trash from piling up. Switching to reusable bottles and containers will prevent pollution — and save you cash, as well. About $285 in savings can be realized by nixing throwaway bottles and sandwich bags from your routine, minus the cost of reusable containers. 

At Bonn, Blanke and his team now have the investment to continue the work on their fish-inspired washer filters. He said that "sustainability" will be a keyword throughout the process. 

"We also plan to use sustainable materials in the design of this non-clogging filter and thus achieve a positive environmental footprint," Blanke said in the lab report. 

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