News, Culture and NPR for Central & Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
91.7FM Alpena and WCML-TV Channel 6 Alpena are off the air. Click here to learn more.

Microplastics filter for laundry wins top prize at Great Lakes AquaHacking challenge 

Left to right: judge Cindy Warner,
Baleena co-founders Sarah Beth Gleeson and Julian Yan accept first place at the AquaHacking Challenge in Traverse City on May 10. Left to right: judge Cindy Warner; Ashley Sloat of Aurora Patents; Baleena co-founders Sarah Beth Gleeson and Julian Yan; and Program Director Anne Pascale Richardson. (Photo: Izzy Ross/IPR News)
This coverage is made possible through a partnership between IPR and Grist, a nonprofit environmental media organization.

The winner of a Great Lakes water quality competition is tackling microplastics pollution one washing machine at a time.

Ten finalists from the United States and Canada presented their work to a four-judge panel at the AquaHacking Challenge at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. Projects dealt with PFAS, lead contamination, microplastics, and nutrients.

The college hosted the event with the charity AquaAction, which is registered in Canada and the U.S. A total of $35,000 in seed money prizes went to the top three winners, along with legal services and $1,000 for the public choice award.

The contest — which is trying to encourage new innovations and technology to help freshwater ecosystems — is open to all residents of the U.S. or Canada who are 18 years of age or older.

The Philadelphia-based startup Baleena won the first-place prize of $20,000 for its microplastics filter that fits into the drum of a washing machine.

“Let’s wash our T-shirts, not eat them,” said co-founder and CEO Julia Yan during her presentation.

The filter uses the motion of the machine to capture microfibers from clothes being washed.

“You can just load it like a normal washing machine load and then run the cycle,” said co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Sarah Beth Gleeson.

Left unfiltered, those particles can end up in lakes and oceans, contaminating drinking water and food. That can lead to a host of health problems. Yan said they wanted to focus on one source of those particles.

"We are creating next-gen filtration devices to reduce that pollution coming from textiles in the supply chain, and we start with individual consumers with a hardware product," she said.

The Traverse City startup Wave Lumina won second place and $10,000 for its pitch to develop portable PFAS contamination detection kits.

Wave Lumina co-founders Vernon LaLone and Joshua Francis pose with their awards at the AquaHacking challenge on May 10. The Traverse City-based startup took second place in the competition. (Photo: Izzy Ross/IPR News)
Wave Lumina co-founders Vernon LaLone and Joshua Francis pose with their awards at the AquaHacking challenge on May 10. The Traverse City-based startup took second place in the competition. (Photo: Izzy Ross/IPR News)

“What this device would do would allow someone to go into the field, get immediate results at one-third of the cost of current testing,” said co-founder Joshua Francis.

Francis said the kits would also drastically cut down testing time. And while it's a rough screening tool that won’t be used for drinking water, he said that kind of testing is needed to determine the scope of many contamination sites. The team hopes to start piloting the test kits locally.

The third place prize of $5,000 went to Proto-StLo, which is using algal filtration technology to reduce lead concentration in drinking water.

The $1,000 public choice award went to Quantum Water. That team worked to develop a system that allows them to detect lead contamination in water by mixing a solution of carbon nanomaterials with a water sample and then shining a UV light on it to determine the level of contamination.

The AquaHacking challenge began in 2015, and this was the first time it was held in the United States.

AquaAction is planning to host more challenges in Traverse City in the coming years. Organizers and supporters hope it can bolster the “blue economy” and promote more innovation in the Great Lakes.

Editor's note: This article originally misidentified the third-place winner.

Copyright 2024 Interlochen Public Radio

Izzy covers climate change for communities in northern Michigan and around the Great Lakes for IPR through a partnership with
Related Content