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16-year-old developed a new device to help solve one of Earth’s biggest problems

When Varun Saikia was 11 years old, he learned about the whale in Thailand that choked to death from eating plastic that had been discarded in the ocean.

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High schooler Varun Saikia of Gujarat, India, first heard of a whale in Thailand dying after ingesting trash from land and sea when he was just 11 years old.

Saikia told AccuWeather National Reporter Jillian Angeline, “I had read that article and it disturbed me a lot, and that basically triggered me to look and explore into this problem that was a whole new world for me.” In other words, “I had no idea this was a problem in my life.”

Saikia subsequently began studying pollution all over the world, with a focus on the area around his childhood home. According to a National Geographic-led study, the Ganges River, India’s largest river, dumps about 3 billion microplastic particles into the Indian Ocean every day. Garbage patches, or accumulations of marine debris, were another topic of study for Saikia. These patches form when ocean currents carry trash across the Pacific.

“Then I took a good look at everything and thought, “Wow, isn’t this obvious?” My eyes are open to the world of plastic.” To quote Saikia: After testing a prototype I made from plastic bottles and boxes in a small pool, I refined the design until I had a 5-foot-long device that could collect 2.5 to 3 kilograms of plastic trash.

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After realizing that his first prototype had a “mouth” and “tail” not unlike those of a crocodile, he gave it the Sanskrit name Makara. Saikia spent a considerable amount of time refining Makara before he was satisfied with his newest design, Flipper, which can sail independently or be attached to a ship. Depending on how it is set up, he says it can hold anywhere from about 1,000 pounds to several hundred tons of plastic waste.

Saikia’s website asserts that 100 ships carrying Flipper technology can eliminate Pacific garbage patches in a year, though the design is still in the prototyping phase. Saikia also claimed that there would be additional uses for this innovative design beyond garbage collection.

In addition to collecting plastic trash, “I am currently working towards making Flipper also a device that can collect data simultaneously,” he explained. He also mentioned that the collected plastic and its location would be recorded and analyzed to improve the efficiency of future collections. The net will be equipped with ultrasonic emitters that scare off fish and marine mammals.

Once a one-man show, Saikia now employs several engineers thanks to government grants in his home state of Gujarat, which is on the coast of western India. The creative teen plans to attend a prestigious program in the United States after he graduates from high school, with the hopes of eventually expanding his project internationally.

He then went on to say, “There are a few schools on my mind.” “Getting into MIT is like a dream come true for me. My first choice is Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by Stanford. A fantastic environmental engineering program can be found at [the] University of Texas at Austin. Therefore, I am very interested in submitting applications to these schools.”

Contributions from Jillian Angeline

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