Microplastics are everywhere. The small bits of plastic — anywhere from about the size of a sesame seed to a tenth of the size of a human hair or smaller — have been found in every ecosystem on the planet.
Just last year, a U.S. Geological Survey study found microplastics in the Upper Colorado River Basin, a remote, high-elevation area, leading researchers to conclude that the particles were distributed from the atmosphere. Another recent study found microplastics in human lung tissue.
“People really don’t know how much microplastics we’re exposed to in our environment,” says Kevin Harsh, a senior scientist at Lafayette-based Sporian Microsystems. “In the last few years people have realized it’s really in everything — in our food, in our water, in our air. Every time they catch a fish and they look in a microscope, they [find] microplastics.”
Accurately quantifying microplastic particles and determining their source can prove difficult, Harsh says, but, with help from a federal grant, Sporian Microsystems is developing a low-cost, high-speed imaging system that will efficiently detect and quantify microplastics in our environment.
Sporian is one of 25 organizations nationwide to receive funding from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which is aimed at helping the private sector address pressing environmental issues. Sporian Microsystems and J-Tech, another Colorado company based in Lakewood, each received $100,000.
Sporian is developing hyperspectral imaging technology that has the ability to “see” more colors at a higher resolution, allowing researchers to better identify different materials, Harsh says.
“You can tell all sorts of things about the materials based on having this additional imaging information,” Harsh says. Microplastics are often identified by adding red dye to a sample and viewing the particles under the microscope, but looking at dyed particles under a microscope doesn’t allow researchers to identify what the plastics are made of and where they came from. Researchers then have to use a chemistry kit, which Harsh says doesn’t work well for tiny, individual particles. Hyperspectral imaging can classify the materials without dye or a chemistry kit.
While the impacts of microplastics on human health are still largely unknown, some studies suggest they can contain toxic chemicals or heavy metals that can be harmful to human health.
“If we’re ever going to understand the impacts to human health, we really need to know what might be causing the problems,” Harsh says. “[We] need to … make the connection between what’s in the environment and what’s affecting human health.”
The technology builds on a previous system Sporian developed under SBIR funding that identified recyclable materials.
“We’re not the first people to make hyperspectral imagers, but the system we’re building is kind of based on our own really low-cost, more accessible version,” Harsh says.
Initially, the system would likely be used by scientists, but Harsh says the technology could ultimately be used by a variety of entities, like local water municipalities.
For smaller municipalities, “like a rural water system, a $5,000 piece of equipment is a big deal,” Harsh says. “They just don’t have surplus funds. So, [we want to keep the technology] inexpensive and accessible,” Harsh says.
Lakewood-based J-Tech is developing a low-cost, sustainable technology to sanitize wastewater in septic tanks onsite to use for irrigation and other non-potable reuse — something EPA spokesperson Dave Piantanida says is “desperately needed” in the West.
“It’s just smart,” Piantanida says. “It’s been a big issue out West for more than a decade.”
The SBIR funding Sporian and J-Tech received was for “proof of concept” of their proposed technologies. If their proofs of concept are successful, the companies can apply for a second round of funding to develop and commercialize their technology. Companies can receive as much as $400,000 in the second round of funding.
“EPA applauds these Colorado businesses for working to develop innovative technologies that protect people and the environment,” said EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker in a press release. “We look forward to seeing these projects evolve into products and processes that can be applied to environmental challenges here in our region and across the U.S.”