Over the last several decades, the modern world has come to realize that plastic, in its many forms, is both a blessing and a curse.
For designers and manufacturers, plastic is a relatively inexpensive, light, and versatile material. It’s also recyclable, generally speaking. However, the ubiquity of plastic materials, especially in limited-use products and packaging, has led to plastic becoming a major pollutant.
Certain forms of plastic pollution are highly visible, such as the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is the largest collection of ocean plastic on the planet.
But what you might not know is that plastic can also become a nearly invisible pollutant, specifically in the form of microplastics.
Originating from common, everyday objects, microplastics are microparticles that can enter the food chain. These particles are also capable of passing through existing purification systems.
Still a relatively new discovery, we currently don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the detrimental effects of microplastics on humans, though research has shown that microplastics can definitely have a negative impact on the health of fish.
Individuals and organizations are becoming increasingly aware of the existence and potential threat of microplastics, and a number of organizations are now looking for ways to mitigate the problem.
One of these organizations is PolyGone Systems, founded by Yidian Liu and Nathaniel Banks. Artvoice was able to speak with Liu about the company’s origins, goals, and current and upcoming projects, all of which revolve around the removal of microplastics from water systems.
Prior to the founding of PolyGone, Liu and Banks won multiple design competitions, including the 2019 SkyHive Skyscraper Competition and the 2021 TerraViva Living Museum Design Competition. They also received the Princeton Research Day Award and the NSF I-Corps Grant.
“In our current project at PolyGone, we have very clear roles and responsibilities. Nathaniel is the principal designer and fabricator of our filter technology and oversees field tests and lab experiments of our filter technology. I oversee the procurement and management of pilot opportunities and coordinate efforts across our media, marketing, and design teams.”
PolyGone has been extremely successful so far, designing a groundbreaking filter and receiving numerous grants and investments to support their mission.
Through Liu and Banks, we were able to get an in-depth look at how the company is working toward a safer future for us all.
Liu made PolyGone’s primary goal very clear:
“Our number one goal at PolyGone is to develop an affordable system to rid microplastics from waterways for good. We’re really concerned about the impact that microplastic pollutants are having on our aquatic environment and the health hazards they pose to humans and wildlife. If we can both develop a reliable filter that can be deployed in all the key access points for microplastics into aquatic ecosystems, we genuinely think we can make a huge positive impact on the planet.”
However, Liu and her team feel that dealing with existing microplastic pollution is only one part of creating better, more sustainable water systems.
The PolyGone team is also focused on addressing the issue from the other side as well by educating the public on the issue and trying to encourage cultural changes that would reduce plastic consumption now and in the future.
“To assist in this effort, our team has engaged in round table discussions, exhibitions, and even built educational pavilions to illustrate the extent of microplastic pollution and the efforts undertaken to remediate it. We believe that supporting public education is just as important as solving the problem itself.
Now we’d like to take you back to the origins of PolyGone, back to its roots at Princeton University and the research that set the whole project into motion.
The origin story
Both Liu and Banks were working on this project from the very start, and they have a history of collaboration that stretches back even further. Long before PolyGone existed, the two first met while attending Syracuse’s School of Architecture. They found that they collaborated very naturally with one another.
“Although we’re both trained as designers, we have different styles and skills when it comes to problem-solving.”
Liu explained that she sees Banks as the “technical genius behind the scenes”, focusing on engineering and the development of tangible systems that can operate in the real world, and to accomplish this, he builds on more than five years of large-scale urban planning and product design experience.
In contrast, Liu is the conceptual designer who “provides speculative and grand visions for each project”, eager to explore the extremes in design and leverage resources from other disciplines.
Later, when they were both attending graduate programs at Princeton, worked on a joint thesis project at Princeton, in which they analyzed aquatic pollutants and waste infrastructure.
Through this research, they realized that, while large plastic items/pollutants were being removed from waterways (obvious trash in a river, for example), there were no systems in place to either capture or recycle the trillions of microplastics in our oceans and drinking water.
“This really concerned us, so we decided to do something to address it. We enlisted the help of Ph.D. candidates from Princeton’s hydrological and chemical engineering programs to prototype a new type of filtration device, specifically designed to capture aquatic microplastics. After several months of testing, fabricating and pivoting, our team finally developed a novel proprietary filter that we call the ‘artificial root’.”
The artificial root is modeled after the fibrous structures of aquatic plant roots, capturing microplastics from aquatic environments where other existing filtration technology simply can’t operate.
This was a real breakthrough, and both Liu and Banks knew they had something special here. Not only was this the first systematic solution to marine microplastic pollution, but the solution was also affordable and quite versatile as well.
Judging by the number of grants they’ve received in support of PolyGone’s core premise, many other individuals and organizations have recognized this value, too.
Grants and funding
Early funding for PolyGone helped bring the organization’s concept into the real world, which of course allowed the team to gather some hard data by putting the filter to the test.
“The first few grants we received were actually from pitch competitions, where we leveraged our design skills to make detailed conceptual illustrations of our filter technology to craft convincing pitch decks. We used the funding from those pitches to support the creation of our first filter prototype and to conduct our first field tests of our technology.”
The data gathered from that original field test helped to validate the technology, particularly in the eyes of investors, and it led to PolyGone securing their first venture capital pre-seed investment.
“This investment then allowed both of us to commit full-time to the startup and allowed us to establish a base of operations, an analysis lab, and hire additional labor for developing and optimizing our technology.”
But the funding didn’t stop there. Just within the last year, PolyGone has received multiple large state and national grants. The plan is to use these grants to conduct industrial-scale deployments of their filter technology in the hopes of validating this tech for commercial applications.
And now, here in 2023, PolyGone has some major plans to further test their technology.
“In terms of our goals for the rest of 2023, we are primarily focused on the successful execution of our pilot tests, which are scheduled to start this summer.”
The ultimate goal of these pilot tests is to optimize the filtration system by observing how it functions out in the real world.
Currently, PolyGone has three full-scale pilot tests planned for three different locations. One of the most important tests will be set in a wastewater treatment facility in Atlantic City, for the purpose of proving the worth of this tech as an industrial filtration solution.
This test will require hundreds of filters, which adds both manufacturing and logistic challenges. This is where some of the funding we just talked about gets put to use, alongside assistance from partnerships with academic institutions like Princeton and the University of Toronto.
“These partnerships are providing our team with both facility and personnel support for analyzing the performance of our filtration systems, which is really important as we look to scale our technology.”
PolyGone is also working with community groups such as the Willistown Conservation Trust and the New York Sea Grant for the development of public engagement plans, which will support monitoring of the pilot tests.
“It’s really important to us to get the community involved in what we’re doing and to make sure we’re being as transparent as possible.”
But these tests are only part of PolyGone’s plans for 2023. The company is also looking to expand their public education efforts.
The team is currently designing an educational pavilion that will be located near the Atlantic City pilot site, and the team is also working on an online public lecture series that will increase awareness regarding microplastic pollution and its prevention.
Last but certainly not least, PolyGone is also expanding their team, largely with young people from diverse backgrounds who are passionate about supporting cleaner waterways.
“We believe that bringing together individuals with varied experiences and perspectives is essential to achieving our goals and making a meaningful impact.”
Looking back, looking forward
Has PolyGone become all that Liu and Banks thought it would be? Liu admitted that they didn’t have lofty expectations early on. They were passionate about the project, but they also faced significant resistance.
“At first, we faced a lot of skepticism from professors and colleagues who believed that only engineers could solve the problem. But we persevered, and over the last year, we’ve managed to bring together a diverse group of experts from various fields to join us on our mission. We’ve also successfully ideated, built, tested, and validated our solution, albeit at a small scale, and we’ve received incredible support from both public institutions and private enterprises.”
There’s certainly a lot to be proud of, but at the same time, the team remains focused on the work ahead.
“We’re proud of what we’ve been able to achieve so far, but at the same time, we recognize that our work is far from finished. We still have a long way to go to achieve our current mission of eliminating microplastic pollutants from our waterways.”
The team has also become more aware of the other companies and research groups working toward the same goal, and that really solving the problem will likely involve collaborating with other organizations.
“We believe that by partnering with other businesses and advocating for policy and behavioral changes, we can make a real and lasting impact on the issue of microplastic pollution.”
The future remains uncertain, but it’s very clear that there’s no going back. The issue of microplastics can’t be ignored, and forward-thinking organizations like PolyGone Systems are working to eliminate the problem permanently.