When Dean Wenham started to notice plastic pollution on beaches, he became curious about how scientists were measuring its impact. As an avid scuba diver and sailing enthusiast, he has cultivated a life-long love of ocean. “I have a personal mission to protect them,” he says.

When he started to look further into the research, the state of microplastics science – and the tools researchers were using – surprised him.

“Researchers were mostly borrowing techniques from other science, such as dragging nets behind boats to collect samples from surface water, the same way some scientists collect samples to analyze plankton,” he says. “Upon collecting the samples, they were using forceps to pick and count visible plastic fragments, measuring them with calipers. None of these tools were specific to the study of microplastics. It seemed a bit backwards to me.”

Fueled by his interest and informed by his own training as a scientist, Wenham kept looking and stumbled upon the work of Ethan Edson, a research engineer at Northeastern University who was developing a sensor to measure and quantify microplastics. They connected, and Edson agreed that there was a lot to be done to accelerate the science. With his background as an entrepreneur and investor, Wenham saw an opportunity, and the two decided to form Ocean Diagnostics.

Bringing new technologies to microplastics science

Wenham and Edson are interested in developing technologies to help researchers more quickly, accurately, and consistently sample and count microplastics, measure their physical properties, and chemically characterize them.

The company’s first tool, Saturna, solves the challenge of achieving consistent sample images for rapid physical analysis of particles. “Saturna is small, portable, and integrates to a connected computer back at the lab,” Wenham explains. “Once you’ve taken your image, the file uploads to our Mariana data portal, where we use machine learning and AI software to assess morphology, size, shape, colour, and form. It can also predict the material category and determine whether we’re looking at a film, a pellet, or foam, for example.”

Before Saturna, getting these results might have taken days, Wenham says. “We can now achieve results in seconds.” Ocean Diagnostics is working with Dr. Banu Örmeci and researchers from Carleton University’s Global Water Institute (GWI) to evaluate Saturna and compare the results from Mariana with standard sampling and lab analysis technologies. Collaborating with GWI has given Ocean Diagnostics the opportunity to test different configurations of Saturna and gain valuable feedback to help in the final product design. The project is part of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Zero Plastic Waste Funding Initiative.

Collecting samples at depth is another challenge. “Studies suggest that 99.8% of oceanic plastic sinks below the ocean’s surface, but existing equipment is cumbersome and needs to be deployed from large research vessels,” Wenham says. “We want to enable researchers to collect more data with a solution that is more accessible and affordable.”

Ascension is the team’s solution, he says. Connected to a tether and rated to 400 metres of depth, this light, portable profiling instrument can be deployed from a small vessel to collect filtered microplastic samples through the water column. As well, Wenham adds, it supports quality control: “Since microplastics are airborne and can originate in clothing, for example, it’s not hard to contaminate samples in the field. The beauty of Ascension is that it filters samples in situ.”

The final offering in the company’s suite of technologies is a submersible sensor device that characterizes particles and identifies their chemical composition. With support from Innovative Solutions Canada, the company is currently working on a bench-scale prototype that uses a flow cell, imaging technology, and spectroscopic techniques to achieve these results.

Next steps

Wenham says Ocean Diagnostics has received its first commercial orders for Saturna and Ascension – a fundamental breakthrough for the company. The team is also exploring how it can enable citizen science on microplastics, inform regulations and policies, and apply its technologies to other areas of research, including the study of biodiversity. Furthermore, as regulations are developed and enforced, the company is positioning itself to become one of the first corporate labs to offer sample analysis.

As a team, Ocean Diagnostics is motivated to make a difference for the planet, Wenham says. “I feel fortunate that we’ve attracted like-minded, talented people to our small team, and that we’ve been able to work together with so many excellent partners, researchers, and experts, including Dr. Örmeci and the team at GWI, to tackle the microplastics challenge. It gives me the confidence that we’re doing the right thing at the right time.”