EXCELSIOR — Quinn Hughes and Tyler Clair, both 12-year-old seventh-graders at Minnetonka Middle School West, care a lot about the environment.
The friends meet once a week to work on their science projects. The projects aren’t for a class; they are environmental research driven by two curious minds.
“I just want to be able to have a world like this when I grow up,” Quinn said.
One of their most recent projects, a research paper on microplastics in four Minnesota lakes, including Lake Minnetonka, earned them first place at the Twin Cities Regional Science Fair held March 1-2, when they were sixth-graders.
In their project, titled “Microplastics in Our Water: a Study of Minnesota Lakes indicated by Dreissena polymorpha,” Quinn and Tyler found Lake Minnetonka could contain more microscopic bits and threads of plastic per unit of water than Lake Superior, Lake Mille Lacs and Lake Pelican.
The pair’s project also earned them the Ricoh Sustainable Development Award and the ISEF Alumni Award from the regional fair, and they moved on to the 82nd annual State Science & Engineering Fair held March 30-31.
Quinn and Tyler got the idea to study microplastics after watching a documentary on them in Lake Superior.
They contacted a Loyola University professor who taught them how to measure microplastics in a lake by taking samples of zebra mussels — which often contain microplastics — and dissolving the mussels in a potassium hydroxide solution, which leaves any microplastics intact and floating at the surface of the solution.
They then counted and viewed the amount of plastic and compared it to the Lake Superior sample.
“We sampled zebra mussels from all the lakes because they are filter feeders, which means they would have filtered the microplastics out of the water,” Tyler said.
The Lake Minnetonka sample, taken from Gideon Bay, had the highest amount of microplastics compared to the other three lakes, with an estimated 25,290 pieces per square kilometer, the researchers found.
Microplastics have been found in Minnesota lakes before, but Quinn and Tyler’s research is believed to be the first that documents microplastics in Lake Minnetonka. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said it does not have data on microplastics there.
The problem with microplastics
Microplastics are generally defined as non-biodegradable particles made from polyethylene, less than 5 millimeters long, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.
They can come from different sources, including larger plastic items breaking down, microbeads in health and beauty products, and plastic threads in clothing, NOAA says.
When microplastics end up in bodies of water it can cause problems. They can end up in the bodies of fish and other marine life and in our water system, both resulting in human consumption of microplastics, Quinn and Tyler explained.
Quinn and Tyler did not specifically study how to prevent microplastics from entering Minnesota lakes, nor did their research address why Lake Minnetonka had such a high amount. But Tyler had a theory.
“We thought it would be Lake Minnetonka because people boat there all the time and they party and the Fourth of July, they throw trash in there,” he said.
The most effective way to prevent microplastics from entering Lake Minnetonka and other Minnesota lakes is to keep trash out of the lake when using it for recreation, the researchers said.
Former president Barack Obama’s administration banned the use of microbeads in products starting in 2017 (to phase out completely by 2019), but according to Quinn and Tyler, this does not cover all microbeads.
The legislation was specific to wash-off products such as face washes and doesn’t cover products like cosmetics, detergents, clothing or industrial products. The two encouraged lawmakers to expand the ban.
Their next project
Quinn and Tyler have already started working on their next big science project — converting coffee grounds into biofuel.
Again, the pair got their idea from a documentary, this time about algae-based biofuel. The problem, Quinn explained, with most biofuel is whatever is used to make the fuel has to be grown and is often a food product such as corn, taking up an agricultural resource.
Used coffee grounds are usually thrown away, Quinn said, so they thought that might be good place to start.
Both Quinn and Tyler come from science families — Tyler has several family members who are scientists, and Quinn’s older brothers are past science fair winners.