We’ve been investigating and studying ocean plastic and pollutants for over a decade with the view of inspiring and enabling effective solutions back on land. Our belief is that only when a problem is truly understood can meaningful solutions be developed to tackle it. 

During eXXpedition Round the World, the majority of what we found from our manta trawl samples were microplastics – small pieces of plastic less than 5mm that persist in the environment, particularly in aquatic and marine ecosystems which have broken off from larger plastic items. We wanted to be able to understand the sources of these small pieces of plastic to be able to inform effective solutions – but this can be challenging, and the first step is to work out what type of plastic they are. 

Luckily, during the Round the World mission we were generously loaned a PerkinElmer Spectrum Two FT-IR spectrometer – an instrument that allows us to do just that.  The FT-IR spectrometer uses infrared light to identify polymers, enabling us to work out whether the fragment is made of polyethylene, polypropylene or any other type of plastic. 

The Spectrum Two FT-IR is easy to use, compact and robust – all excellent attributes when our plan was to take it to sea on board S.V. Traveledge on a circumnavigation crewed by a multidisciplinary team! But what no one could have planned for was a pandemic forcing a stop to our at sea mission and needing to continue the route around the world from land via a series of Virtual Voyages – to Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Caribbean and the Arctic. 

Emily Penn using the Perkin Elmer FTIR onboard SV TravelEdge. Photo credit: eXXpedition & Sophie Bolesworth

Fortunately, eXXpedition Director Emily Penn was able to carry this essential piece of equipment back to the UK from Tahiti by and deliver it to Mission Leader Sally Earthrowl who has been using it for each of the immersive and interactive Virtual Voyage experiences from her ‘home office/lab’. 

We caught up with Sally to hear how it’s been going back on land with the FTIR these past few months.

How useful the FTIR has been for education?

PerkinElmer Spectrum Two (ATR-FTIR) is really useful to demonstrate how we can analyse samples to identify the polymer type, work out what type of products that polymer is used in and then look upstream at how we manage that product/item to ensure it doesn’t end up out in our ocean in the future.  During our voyages we found a high prevalence of polyethylene in surface waters; this plastic is used widely in food packaging, bottles, films and plastic bags. It’s really useful to our Virtual Voyage crews to see us using the FTIR and provides a great experiential learning opportunity. I have also recorded myself using it to share with school groups when doing outreach activities, it really helps to explain the science if students can see me using the equipment in action!

Sally on Zoom with Perkin Elmer during a Virtual Voyage. Photo credit: eXXpedition & Sally Earthrowl

How have you been using the FTIR during the last few months? 

The FTIR is a key feature of our Science Watch which forms part of our Virtual Voyage experience. Virtual Voyages emulate a lot of our at sea mission and so a huge part of that is the scientific analysis of the samples. The FTIR has its own Zoom account and joins me on the Watch so that the crews can see the screen through the FTIR account and watch the sample analysis get matched with a library sample, and then the process of setting up and using the FTIR through my own Zoom account – almost as if they are in my living room with me!

Sally analyses a microplastic using the FTIR machine during a Virtual Voyage. Photo credit: eXXpedition & Sally Earthrowl

Any fun memories of having the FTIR at home for the past six months? 

We’ve called the FTIR ‘Perks’ and like I said, and Perks has a zoom account!  During a Virtual Voyage I often find it’s just me and Perks on a date in the room as the crew are discussing the potential sources of the main polymer types found in our Caribbean samples from eXXpedition Round the World. Not the obvious online date I’d imagined during lockdown but nothing’s been as expected has it?

On 29 June 2021 at 18:00 BST (GMT+1) Emily Penn spoke to Tim Mann from Perkin Elmer via a LinkedIn Live to understand more about the power of technology for solving ocean plastic pollution. You can watch it on the eXXpedition LinkedIn page here.