The July 2, 1937the aviator Amelia Earhart He was trying to become the first person to fly around the world over the equator when his runway mysteriously disappeared into the waters of the Pacific. She sent the last message from him to the US Coast Guard Itasca at 21:30 GMT. He was warning that he was running out of fuel and that he was starting to experience problems. Nothing more was known. To this day it is not known exactly where he could have crashed and his plane has not been recovered. However, some remains have been detected that could be related to it. This is already quite interesting on its own. But it is even more so if we take into account that the analysis of one of these fragments can help in a very curious way in the fight against contamination by microplastics.
The problem that these small pieces of plastic it is more than familiar. They reach the ocean, accumulating in the organism of the animals that live in it. It is a problem, because they are toxic to them. But also because from there they return to us, through the consumption of products such as the fish or the salt. Remains of microplastics have been found in fluids such as blood or breast milk. Also in the lungs. And, returning to the water, they have been detected in such remote places like arctic snow.
It is important to find ways to prevent them from reaching the sea and that is where the search for Amelia Earhart comes into play, since a team of scientists from the University of Pennsylvania has used a mysterious fragment that could belong to his plane to test a new technology that can help detect microplastics in the sand with great efficiency.
In 1991, the International Group for the Recovery of Historic Aircraft was searching the vicinity of the Nikumaroro Islandwest of the Pacific Ocean, when he came across a metal fragment that caught his attention.
They were aware that, among the missing ships in the area, could be Amelia Earhart’s. Therefore, when looking at some rivets similar to those seen in the images of the plane in which he disappeared, they knew they had something very important on their hands. Unfortunately, it was not possible to prove that it was the Lockheed Elektra of the American adventurer, so that metal plate fell into oblivion. Until now.
Connection with microplastics
Daniel Beck, manager of the engineering program at the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center (RSEC)I was watching a documentary about National Geographic about searching for Amelia Earhart when she had a big revelation. At that time, he and his team were starting to test the Breazeale Reactora device that performs neutron x-rays. This technique makes it possible to discern some elements from others, but it does not do so like X-rays, based on density. In reality, the neutrons pass through heavier particles and interact with some of the lighter particle nuclei in the sample.
Beck thought that this could be used to analyze the fragment of the aircraft for traces of material that would have gone undetected by conventional techniques. For this reason, they contacted the team that found it in 1991 and requested its study. They had no qualms about making it available, so soon these scientists had in their hands what could be one of the pieces of the puzzle of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.
As they had predicted, by subjecting it to the neutron study, they were able to see some paint marks, possibly from the original manufacturer. It has not yet been possible to demonstrate which manufacturer was, but the way to find it is much more paved.
His true mission
It was a great rehearsal for the true purpose of this team, which has already begun to study sand samples in search of microplastics. Discerning some particles from others is very complicated. However, while sand is not detected on neutron X-rays, microplastics do show up “like Christmas lights,” in Beck’s words.
This is very useful, not for detect microplastics, but to discern where they are not. Thus, the effectiveness of some filters aimed at reducing the release of this type of particles into the sea can be measured.
So far, these scientists have presented their results at the International Atomic Energy Agency conference on Applications of Radiation Science and Technology. Preliminary results have been quite good. And all thanks to a first test with a material as enigmatic as that metal sheet that could be part of the aircraft that one day disappeared forever in the waters of the Pacific.