USC student wins big prize for plastic waste capture device – USC Viterbi

Nagarajah received a $25,000 award for developing the device, which prevents plastic debris from flowing through neighborhood drainage systems and polluting the oceans. Photo/Lauren Silberman.

While walking the crowded streets of his hometown of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thilushon Nagaragah noticed the plastic waste choking the open drains running through the city. Like many areas with underdeveloped sewage systems, in Colombo, sewage, debris and rubbish – including plastic bottles and bags – flow directly through ditches or channels into the ocean.

Plastic in the oceans is a serious problem, killing more than 100,000 marine animals and 1 million seabirds each year. As an environmentally conscious engineering student, Nagarajah knew he had to do something to help.

Nagarajah, now a master’s student in computer science at the University of Southern California, has developed a device that prevents plastic debris from flowing through neighborhood drainage systems and polluting the oceans. his motto? When it comes to plastic pollution, prevention is better than cure.

Nagarajah is a master’s student in computer science at the University of Southern California. Photography / Tamugna Sarkar.

“There are a lot of big projects that are trying to capture the plastic that’s already out there, which is great,” Nagarajah said. But the best thing is to stop it from where it originated. We have to prevent him from getting to the ocean in the first place.”

In mid-November 2022, Nagarajah discovered that his project was a Top 5 finalist for the IBM Call for Code Global Challenge out of thousands of entries around the world, including professional teams.

At the awards ceremony in New York on December 9, Nagarajah took second place in the competition, receiving $ 25,000 to develop the technology, which is called Ppialong with implementation support from IBM engineers.

Simple yet effective

It was not Nagarajah’s first successful brush. In December 2021, Nagarajah and his team won first prize in the IBM Call for Code Education Innovation Case Competition for an e-learning mobile application that allows students around the world to access distance learning without the need for fast or reliable internet.

Last spring, he was taking a course Autonomous cyber physical systems When the Call for Code contest email arrived in his inbox. The timing was perfect. He knew exactly what he wanted to develop: an autonomous device to prevent plastic pollution.

“In countries with a shortage of resources, large-scale and expensive clean-up projects are nothing but a dream,” Nagaraga said. “I knew we needed a simple and effective plastic cleaning initiative that focused on everyday consumers.”

Nagarajah tested the final prototype in the swimming pool of his student housing complex.

Nagarajah developed the technology from scratch over the course of three weeks, and tested the final prototype in the swimming pool of the student housing complex. Inexpensive (the prototype costs just $30 to build) and lightweight, it can be set up by anyone who wants to stop the flow of plastic debris through neighboring drainage systems.

He said, “Every house has its own banks that connect to others.” Nagarajah. “You put the device into the drain that your home runs, so that you can control it.”

The device’s camera, powered by artificial intelligence, monitors internal debris and intercepts harmful products such as plastic, polythene, and tin. A mechanical arm with wire mesh is then deployed to catch the incoming debris, which is then stored and removed periodically by the user.

Nagarajah built an artificial intelligence model that uses object recognition to distinguish between organic and plastic waste in a water canal. Once the plastic is identified, the AI ​​sends a message to the motor driver to start rolling an electric motor, which begins to spin the wheels and transfer the plastic to the container.

User can monitor device usage to see estimated marine life saved by their device on the app. Nagarajah estimates that 400 sea animals and birds could be saved with just one device for a year.

Make a real difference

Nagarajah believes this is the first product of its kind aimed at individual consumers. While wire mesh has been used to capture plastics around the world, the system is usually implemented by authorities or NGOs.

“Anyone can buy this product from the market and keep it next to their home and open exchange system,” Nagarajah said. “This is primarily aimed at Good Samaritans who want to make a change.”

In Colombo for example, Nagarajah estimates that 19 machines placed in each of the city’s sewers could capture plastic pollution for 100,000 consumers — about 2 tons annually. He hopes that communities across Sri Lanka and beyond will be interested in using the device to clean their waterways. He has already moved on to the next stage of development: making the application self-contained.

“Currently, when an IoT device finds plastic, it stores the information in the device itself,” Nagarajah said.

“When the phone gets close to the device, it sends the information to the device and the cloud. The next version will connect to a nearby wi-fi to send the information directly.”

This marks the fifth global challenge for Call for Code, a multi-year global initiative that inspires developers to solve pressing global challenges with sustainable software solutions. Nagarajah hopes his influence will be felt far beyond his country’s borders.

“If you are a vegan, or if you are an activist, you are an individual working to make a difference. If you want to stop plastic pollution, this tool will help you do that,” Nagaraga said.

“Even a few of these tools can strategically make a big difference at points across a city. I feel they have the potential to make real impact and real change.”

Posted January 18, 2023

Last updated on January 18, 2023

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