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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/Y001303/1
Title: Mechanics of plastic pollutants in rivers
Principal Investigator: Maldonado, Dr S
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
ETH Zurich
Department: Sch of Engineering
Organisation: University of Southampton
Scheme: Standard Research - NR1
Starts: 01 January 2024 Ends: 31 December 2024 Value (£): 125,706
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Coastal & Waterway Engineering Fluid Dynamics
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
No relevance to Underpinning Sectors
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
24 May 2023 ECR International Collaboration Grants Panel 2 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
According to the United Nations Environment Program, plastic pollution of marine ecosystems is one of the key emerging issues affecting the environment. It is difficult to overstate the severity and breadth of the problem. Plastic pollutants are not only a threat to virtually all marine life, but their breaking down into microplastics also poses a major health hazard to humans (alarmingly, microplastics have been recently found in human placentas).

The vast majority of plastic litter found in the oceans - the volume of which is predicted to increase in the coming decades - has its source inland, and one of the main pathways by which it enters the seas is via rivers. However, research carried out so far on the transport and fate of plastics in bodies of water has focused almost exclusively on the marine environment, and on micro-plastics in particular. A sensible - and as of now, largely unexplored - approach is that of addressing the issue of larger-size plastic litter in rivers, where plastics: (a) have not yet had the time to break down into microplastics, and (b) are localised rather than dispersed over very large areas (of oceanic scales). What is more, the UK generates more plastic waste per person than almost any other country (second only to the USA), some of which has been found polluting other countries' environments. Thus, contributing to the generation of knowledge and designing solutions to this worldwide environmental crisis is a moral imperative for UK-based researchers and taxpayers. Moreover, this generation of new knowledge may lead to an innovative domestic industry of river cleaning technologies.

To ensure efficacy and optimal efficiency, any engineering intervention aimed at removing plastics from rivers must be based on a solid understanding of the mechanics of plastic transport in these environments. Nevertheless, relevant studies are scarce, especially when compared with similar research in marine settings (where hydrodynamics are markedly different from those of rivers). Physics-based models for the transport of plastics in rivers, which enable us to accurately predict where plastic is most likely to be found, are urgently needed. Therefore, this research project aims to generate fundamental insights on the mechanics of plastic transported by rivers, with a view to inform and enable effective river-cleaning measures and technologies aimed at addressing the pressing issue of plastic litter in the environment.

Well-controlled experiments will be carried out in two different facilities in order to analyse the mechanics of plastic particles in (i) homogeneous turbulence and (ii) wall-bounded turbulent flows. The latter represent flow conditions similar to those found near the bed of a river, while the former mimic those away from the bed. For homogeneous turbulence, we will employ a specialised facility at ETH Zurich (the international collaborator), while wall turbulence experiments will be carried out in a 16 m long hydraulic flume at the University of Southampton (the host institution). State-of-the-art experimental techniques will be employed, such as Particle Image Velocimetry and Particle Tracking Velocimetry. The influence of particle density, size, shape and rigidity (given a total of 14 different types of plastic particles) will be investigated.

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Organisation Website: http://www.soton.ac.uk