You are currently browsing the Cesar Harada posts tagged: pollution

Developing a Plastic Sensor for the ocean

I feel so happy to happy to work with a group of the Hong Kong Harbour School kids to develop an optical plastic sensor for the ocean on Instructables!

Screen Shot 2014-07-06 at 20.40.48

You can download the current pdf here (4mb) :

Where is all the plastic in the ocean?

About 10 days ago, we went out with a little group of students and we intentionally spilled 138 gr of plastic samples in a small lake in Hong Kong to test our optical plastic particle sensor. After a few seconds we had to stop the test because our experiment became the feast of many fishes and turtles. It was terrifying to see how quickly plastic debris spread, how voraciously animals came to eat it and how difficult it was to clean it up. It took 10 of us, 4 boats and 40 minutes to clean 138 gr of plastic debris with no waves, no current and very moderate wind. Imagine tons of plastic debris in the open sea and all the animals there…

Today  I have been under an avalanche of questions about plastic pollution in the ocean. It seems hard to trust a reliable source of information or maybe it is the science that is moving very fast. People ask me maybe because I have sailed across the gyre myself, collected plastic samples in Hawaii, and nowadays working on an optical plastic sensor with a team of young students in Hong Kong when I am not developing a fleet of sailing robots that I hope one day will be out there measuring plastic and other pollutions like radioactivity, acidification, oil spills, overfishing and other urgent ocean issues. But to be honest I have much more questions than I have answers – at this stage we all do. I am writing to compile some informations I came across recently, trying to make sense and propose some ideas.


When we found out

“Every year we produce about 300 million tons of plastic, a portion of which enters and accumulates in the oceans. […] In 2012 alone, 288 million tons of plastic were produced (PlasticsEurope 2013), which is approximately the same weight of the entire human biomass (Walpole et al., 2012). […] The discovery of fragmented plastic during plankton tows of the Sargasso Sea in 1971 led to one of the earliest studies of plastic in the marine environment. Using a 333 micron surface net trawl, Carpenter and Smith collected small fragments of plastics in 1971, resulting in estimates of the presence of plastic particulates at an average of 3,500 pieces and 290 g/km2 in the western Sargasso Sea (Carpenter and Smith, 1972). Shortly after, Colton et al., (1974) surveyed the coastal waters from New England to the Bahamas and confirmed distribution of plastic all along the North Atlantic. These studies have been recently updated in two comprehensive studies of the North Atlantic gyre (K. L. Law et al., 2010; Moret- Ferguson et al., 2010). Indeed, plastic is found in most marine and terrestrial habitats, including bays, estuaries, coral reefs, lakes and the open oceans. (Rochman et al., 2014, Wright et al., 2013). The ingestion rate of plastic particles by mesopelagic fish species in this area is estimated between 12,000 and 24,000 ton/year (Davison and Asch, 2011).
“How the oceans can clean themselves, A feasibility Study” Ocean Cleanup Array, June 2014.


What we thought we knew

AVANI-trawl, photo marcus Eriksen

I trust Algalita Foundation and 5 gyres for that I was lucky to meet them in person and they had been to several gyres many times as an independent non-profit organisation. Below are some journeys they have done with a manta trawler as you see a picture of above. They explain their method very well and in simple words here.
In 2008, we had a horrifying map but we felt somehow confident about the data.

Plastic ocean Ma

In 2010, Dohan and Maximienko  (Illustration above, 2010. Oceanography 23, 94–103.), based on the trawler data by Algalita and other organisations produced this famous simulation of where we should expect plastic to be. Don’t be fooled by some pictures you probably saw of the “plastic continent”, such thing does not exist in the middle of the ocean.

Yet, the Algalita announced that “Estimates of plastic in the world’s oceans exceed 100 million tons. Though 20% comes from ocean sources like derelict fishing gear, 80% comes from land, from our watersheds.”

So at this stage, we thought, we would find tens of millions of tons of plastic debris in the gyres. Well…


What we think we know now

Thanks to Dr Blurton of the Hong Kong Harbour School who sent me the pdf, I was quite shocked with this new publication “Plastic debris in the open ocean” by Andrés Cózara, Fidel Echevarríaa, J. Ignacio González-Gordilloa, Xabier Irigoienb, Bárbara Úbedaa, Santiago Hernández-Leónd, Álvaro T. Palmae, Sandra Navarrof, Juan García-de-Lomasa, Andrea Ruizg, María L. Fernández-de-Puellesh, and Carlos M. Duartei. Good job ladies and gentlemen. The pdf is here :
I am selecting only some essential information but I recommend you to read the paper, it’s short, only 5 pages + references.

"Concentrations of plastic debris in surface waters of the global ocean" Plastic debris in the open ocean
In 2010 (yes, 4 years ago – but the paper has been published June 6th 2014), the team embarked on a sailing journey around the world as the “Malaspina science expedition” , doing  3,070 ocean samples with a manta trawler. The grey areas is where prior research ( explained above) suggest they would find plastic accumulation, and that was verified as you see with the yellow, orange and red dots. But…

“Those little pieces of plastic, known as microplastics, can last hundreds of years and were detected in 88 percent of the ocean surface sampled during the Malaspina Expedition 2010,” lead researcher and the author of the study Andres Cozar from the University of Cadiz, told AFP. The total amount of plastic in the open-ocean surface is estimated at between 7,000 and 35,000 tons, according to the report. This amount, though big, is lower than the scientists expected.”

"Range of the global load of plastic debris in surface waters of the open ocean" Plastic debris in the open ocean

  • Before this paper, much of the attention was focused toward the North Pacific Garbage Patch => turns out all the other oceans are in bad shape too.
  • Before this paper, we knew plastic was present in all oceans but the general consensus was that it was accumulating in the center of the gyres mostly => Now we have measured plastic to be present on 88% of the world ocean surface. Pretty much everywhere.
  • Before this paper, the estimates were ranging from tens of millions of tons to hundred of millions of tons => Now maximum 35’000 tons. [silence] 35’000 tons? That’s it!!!??? Is that amazing good news, or is that bad news!?


What we (think we) really know now

Out of the estimated millions of tons of plastic debris we emit, we can now only find at most 35’000 tons spread over 88% of the oceans. S0 we know now where is less than 1% of the plastic we anticipated finding. Where is the 99%+ of the rest of the plastic? This is really embarrassing.


The media is going crazy about it

The articles about this are popping out from all part, I wont try to keep track of all the links, because they are pretty much all based on the same paper I mentioned above. Many are spreading panic, instead of awareness unfortunately.


What will the Ocean CleanUp  Array collect?

Back in October 2012 “according to Boyan Slat’s calculations, a gyre could realistically be cleaned up in five years’ time, collecting at least 7.25 million tons of plastic combining all gyres. He however does note that an ocean-based cleanup is only half the story, and will therefore have to be paired with ‘radical plastic pollution prevention methods in order to succeed.” (Wikipedia, retrieved July 2nd, 2014). 

In June 2014, in the feasibility study : “The Ocean Cleanup Array is estimated to be 33 times cheaper than conventional cleanup proposals per extracted mass of plastics. In order to extract 70 million kg (or 42 percent) of garbage from the North Pacific Gyre over 10 years, we calculated a total cost of 317 million euro.”

Multilevel Trawl

Sure, the “multi-level trawler” (p102 0f the Feasibility Study)  used by the Ocean Cleanup team is radically different from the “regular manta trawler” everybody else uses. But the difference of plastic quantity is not found here either. There are so many variables to making a correct plastic measurement, the speed of the boat, the size of the mesh, the position of the trawler in the regards to the wake of the boat, the wind and the waves …

So, how can the Ocean Cleanup collect 70’000 tons from the North Pacific Gyre alone if the most recent estimate of ALL the plastic in ALL ocean surface combined is only of 35’000 tons? And how can this information even be trusted when ” Last year, an estimated 150,000 tons of marine plastic debris ended up on the shores of Japan and 300 tons a day on India’s coasts ( retrieved July 3rd 2014)”.  If this recent study  from the Malaspina expedition confirms true, would the collection of plastic debris with the Ocean Cleanup array be less meaningful? And less profitable if at all? But wait, that is not the question. Of course we need to stop emitting plastic in the ocean – that’s not a new idea and that is self-evident. And of course we must collect the plastic that is already out there and will continue to accumulate in the ocean – even if it is expensive instead of profitable. I personally support Boyan Slat and his team. No matter how many people say “this is impossible” someone has got to try. Even if it is to fail, we must try and try again, again we succeed. This technology, or another technology.

But the real question remains : where is the plastic? How can we have plastic measurements dropping so dramatically?


How can we find out what is really going on?

Such a large amount of plastic has not disappeared over night, between 2008 (Algalita estimate) and 2010 (Malaspina measurements).

Scientists argue that :

  • some plastic breaks down so small, it goes through the fine plankton net they use. Plastic still floats but we can’t be measured unless we use an extra finer mesh that is probably more fragile, forcing the ship to move the trawler even slower (it was already recommended to sail at 2 Nautical Knots, well up to 8 knots for the fast Erikson trawler).
  • the plastic chemical composition changes causing it to distribute in the water column or sink at the bottom of the ocean
  • the plastic is being ingested by animals and is being pooped, dropping to the bottom of the ocean, or it moves into the food web with all it’s toxics and until it eventually reached our plates

But we don’t know yet in which proportions each of these phenomenon happen at all yet.


Some ideas

Optical sensing

If the plastic is so small that it go through the mesh, maybe it is not a mesh we should be using to measure plastic. What about optics?
For a long time Laser Optical Plankton Counters (LOPC) have been in use to measure plankton. We don’t collect physical sample, we collect data, the machine can keep running without interruption, the data is more granular and instantly processed.

Laser-Optical Plankton Counter (LOPC)  Laser-Optical Plankton Counter (LOPC)

In the LOPC, water carrying plankton is  flowing. The plankton is being “flashed” by a laser and it is from the outline it that is then counted automatically.

Laser-Optical Plankton Counter (LOPC)

Mobile sensing platform

Haching a video water channel at the Hong Kong aharbour School

With a motivated group of young students, we hacked a low cost water video channel.

Testing the Ocean Plastic optical sensor, Hong Kong Harbour School

We attached our optical sensor to a small Remote Controlled (RC) power boat. As we sailed, some water that contains plastic debris was video recorded and the plastics bits were also captured in the pink net at the back of the video channel. The point of the pink net is too measure the plastic physically collected that has travelled through the video channel, and compare it with the estimate that we can make from the video alone. We have not done that experiment comparison yet, but it would give us an idea of how reliable our video estimate is in comparison to the real measured weight of plastic collected.

We managed to capture video of plastic particles moving through the video channel. This still very rough.


Motion tracking of plastic parts

We have been very lucky to get some help from Edward Fung who started to tinker with the video on OpenCV.


Isolation and quantification of plastic

Now, it would be great if we could find out what is plastic and what is not. One of the greatest difficulty being that plastic debris becomes a habitat or a transport for a lot of marine life. How can an untrained software (as opposed to a machine learning based software) distinguish plastic from something else? Typically a plastic fragment would be wrapped into a “bubble” of organic matter, making it more difficult to isolate from an optical perspective. Thankfully, one student in our team, Brandon Wong found out this research :

“We succeeded in developing technology that is capable of sensing plastics using an InGaAsP (Indium Gallium Arsenide Phosphide) semiconductor laser diode (LD)

It was discovered that upon measuring light absorption spectra in plastics, in the wavelength range of 300 to 3000 nm, the peak values were always observed at or near 1700 nm, regardless of plastic types. This discovery opened the possibility for simple optical sensing of plastics with the use of a LD in this wavelength range. Observation of unique light absorption characteristics within the near infra-red spectrum of each different plastic type has led us to develop the world’s first technology capable of detecting different types of plastics with the use of a LD (with three different wavelengths).”

So this is really exciting if we could use the right “lighting” and camera to optically detect such great variety of plastic. There are several inspiring DIY spectrometer projects out there to get inspired from. Check also the Riffle with Optical data logger capacity.


Size adjustment

If we manage to get that optical detection running, the last but not least challenge may be to scale  from a regular webcam to a microscope-scaled system.


"Size distribution of floating plastic debris collected during the Malaspina circumnavigation at calm conditions." Plastic debris in the open ocean

According to the research done during the Malaspina Ocean Expedition the plastic particles we are trying to measure are very very small… Could we be heading in the direction of microfluidic systems?

If the plastic debris we are trying to test are incredibly small, could we control the flow in a very precise yet robust way to perform spectral and / or chemical analysis? Many questions to explore…

So with such a system, could we answer the 2 first questions? :

  • sensing plastic that is extremely small
  • sensing plastic that is small and broken and sunk at the bottom of the ocean – that would imply that this machine can be taken thousands of meter deep : super high-pressure resistant

I day dream that a fleet of autonomous sailing robots doing the remote sensing work. In fact the Ocean Cleanup feasibility study mentions the relevance of deploying such sensor network system in it’s recommandation pages :

P439_Ocean cleanup array_TOC_Feasibility_study_lowres

Is that a fleet of Protei right there :) !?

And now the third question ? What part do animals have in the “plastic disappearing” plot? We wont be able to see that in an optical system unless we’re dealing with tiny transparent animals.


Animal testing

I feel terrible for even thinking about this but that is just an idea at this stage. What I am about to propose might be totally unethical, I don’t know. Marine biology and toxicology are not my areas at all. Forgive my ignorance and please correct anything wrong that I may propose, please comment to help.

As I used as this post introduction, our experience with dispersing 138gr of plastic had become a spill in a few seconds on which turtles and fishes came to feast. We had to interrupt the experiment and it took 10 of us during 40 minutes to collect 138gr of plastic debris with 4 boats on a lake that had no current, no waves and very moderate wind. What we learnt is that turtles and fishes love to eat plastic. In fact many studies about suffering, dead animal dissection and observation of carcasses indicate that birds, and marine animals feed abundantly on plastic. But how do you measure how much plastic an animal is willing to eat when given the choice?

In a controlled environment – say a box – we place an aquatic animal. We feed this animal a mix of plastic and “real” food in equal quantities with an excess of overall quantity.

  • Will the animal eat more food or plastic (behaviour)? Will that behaviour change over time? Does the animal develop a preference for certain plastic? By the taste? Smell? Texture? Colour? Motion?
  • How much plastic would still remain untouched in the environment?
  • How much plastic will travel through the digestive system?
  • How much plastic would remain within the digestive system? And if so, how much would the plastic be digested if at all?
  • What are the short term symptoms of plastic poisoning (mechanical) ?
  • What are the long term symptom of plastic poisoning (chemical)?
  • What is the lethal dose for type A / B / C / D / Plastic?
  • What is the most lethal shape or size of plastic fragment?
  • Is an animal dead by plastic attractive as a food form for another carcasses-eating animals?
  • When an animal dies and decompose, how much of the overall plastic of the experiment remains?

many more questions could be asked and variables included such as the size of the box, the season, the age of the animal, the sex, social learning doing the experiment with multiple animals simultaneously.


Who is active in Hong Kong?

There are several groups in Hong Kong interested in the topic of plastic pollution


My non-conclusion

What we thought we know about plastic pollution has just been challenged in a very big way. And I believe this will happen again soon as we investigate.
The plastic pollution is present at a whole different scale, both small for the particle size and huge by it’s distribution over pretty much the entire ocean surface (88%) and abyssal depths.
The effects of plastic pollution at theses scales are still very unknown. As we keep developing new concepts for ocean cleaning we are still lacking understanding of where is the plastic, how is it transformed while travelling great distances? How does it impact marine life? How does plastic and it’s chemical compounds travel through the food chain to our plates? What are the consequences on human health? What can we do about it?

The more we learn about plastic in the ocean and the more we understand how harmful of a substance it is. And as André Cózar concludes in this important paper.

The abundance of nano-scale plastic particles has still not been quantified in the ocean, and the measurements of microplastic in deep ocean are very scarce, although available observations point to a significant abundance of microplastic particles in deep sediments, which invokes a mechanism for the vertical transport of plastic particles, such as biofouling or ingestion. Because plastic inputs into the ocean will probably continue, and even increase, resolving the ultimate pathways and fate of these debris is a matter of urgency.

So many more questions now… But 2 ideas how to investigate. More ideas? Suggestions? Readings?


20140426 Ocean Plastic Debris Optical Sensor. Research Proposal for DIY low cost sensor

I am interested in developing a low cost, DIY plastic debris sensor that would be mounted on the bow of regular ships, boats … or an autonomous sailing robot :p
The project was suggested by both Doug Woodring of Ocean Recovery Alliance and Christine Greenberg of the Harbour School, Hong Kong. The concept was born during a conversation with Hank Carson (Hilo University of Hawaii), Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummings (5 Gyres) in January 2013 while sailing on the MV Explorer across the Pacific Ocean and after a visit of Kamilo Beach south of big Island.

In a nutshell and richly illustrated :
Plastic ocean map, macro, micro debris
The ocean have millions of tons of plastic, but it tend to be broken down so small, the naked eye cannot see it.

Current technology _ manta trawler
Currently we are using large extremely expensive research vessels to drag plankton manta trawlers and we count plastic bits manually under a microscope. It is slow, expensive and potentially dangerous.

our solution
I suggest we use a machine similar to an LOPC (Laser Optical Particle Counter) that marine biologist use to count plankton, but refit them to measure plastic. This machine could be installed at the bow of ship. A vertical stack of them would allow the continuous collection of plastic as well as plankton data, at different depth. I insist, we would not collect physical samples, only data. This system would provide near-real-time plankton / plastic qualification and quantification, much higher resolution, and all of that without human repetitive labour. I believe that such installation at the bow of a ship would be safer and attractive since the ship could sail much faster than with a trawler. The idea is to make the system lightweight and low cost so it could be mounted not only on research vessels, but on any type of vessel becoming a sort of Ship of Opportunity.

In the document I outline a roadmap to develop the sensor, from the lab, to the river, to the ocean. I am aware that few micro-plastic debris can be found in rivers, mostly large debris that end in the ocean where they are broken down with the action of UV, salt, the mechanical action of wave and animal bites.

Step 1 : recreate the elements of study and the conditions.
Plastic, algae, plastic + algea

Step 2 : create a “loop” where water flows carrying plastic debris as well as plankton and contaminated plastic debris.

Step 3 : Get out of the lab and test the counter in an open channel.

Step 4 : try out a stack of channels in the open sea.
our solution
Step 5 : map the data.
plastics map


This is a very exciting topic for me and I look forward to update you about our progress – that will be logged on

You can view and comment the original document (much longer) here :

Please let me know if  you are interested in helping on the project. We need expertise in :

  • optics
  • image processing (still and video)
  • electronics
  • fluid mechanics
  • GIS
  • marine biology
  • physical oceanography
  • underwater robotics
  • statistics

Thank you for reading.

2013 Lamma Island Oil Spill needs more Research & Cleaning

On July 14th, my girlfriend and were hiking on Lamma Island (Hong Kong) for her birthday. I was told there had been a small oil spill recently, but I did not expect to see it when we arrived in Tung O Wan, Shek Pai Wan (22.196649, 114.139827).

“June 21, a 10m x 15m slick was reported in waters off Tung O Wan, and a 100m x 15m slick was seen on Tung O Wan beach. The department cleaned small oil patches off Tung O Wan on June 22 and 23, and will send samples of the oil to the Government Laboratory for analysis.”

We made this video with our mobile phone that day, thanks to Nadege Nguyen.

Dissection of a crab

Crab Lungs affected by Oil Spill

Panorama & Photos

Lamma Oil Spill 2013, Panorama, Shek Pai Wan 2013 07 14

Oil Spill at Shek Pai Wan, Lamma Island
That’s how we saw the beach on the July 14th 2013. All the black slug you see on the rocks is oil.

I guess that’s the oil as it was reaching shore a fews days after June 21st 2013 (Aerial photography).

That was before the oil spill. It would be good to get back to this state.

Proposal for further Research & Cleaning

Shek Pai wan site needs more research and more cleaning.

  1. Biological analysis. Sampling crabs, fishes, turtles, shells and study their respiratory, digestive, endocrine and reproductive systems. 
  2. Aerial Photography & Mapping with visible and infrared spectrum.
  3. Underwater photography and mapping with visible and infrared spectrum
  4. Water sample Spectrography to detect traces of oil  (and perhaps other chemicals) in water

All research would be done using Open Source technology and the findings published as we go.

I am looking for Hong Kong residents to collaborate, please get in touch :

20130410 Ghana, lack of ocean data and oil spill preparedness

Fishing near Axim

We’ll start by the fun stuff with good Ghanian music :) We were very much interested about the life of the Ghanian fishermen, so we just drove there and met a community of them near Axim. After a few minutes of discussion we asked if we could join them for a fishing experience and they accepted to take us out on the water. At rising sun, we pushed the vessel in the water on big steel rolls and wood boards, passed the wave breaking point, sailed to the fishing spot, deployed our nets, sailed back to shore, pulled the nets for a long time. I was surprised that even for pulling the nets back on shore, no mechanics is being used, it is all raw human power. The men were incredibly strong and pretty much risking their lives without any safety. The reason why we came to visit the fishermen, is because we wanted to know if their had been affected by the recently introduced offshore oil industry nearby. Thanks to Samuel Ainoosoa Kwesie for introducing us to the captain.

Ghana Oil Industry

Ghana Petroleum (Thousand Barrels per Day)
Ghana Petroleum (Thousand Barrels per Day). Source:

I did my homework about Ghana: Large oil reserves have been discovered in 2007, in 2010 Ghana joined the league of oil-producers, in June 2011 Bloomberg reports that “Ghana’s GDP Growth Accelerates to 23% as Oil Production Starts”.

Ghana Carbon Dioxide Emissions (Million Metric Tons of CO₂)
Ghana Carbon Dioxide Emissions (Million Metric Tons of CO₂). Source:

According to the World Bank Ghana is a relatively healthy democratic developing country with a good multi-party political system, freedom of press, a good education infrastructure, with a growing industrial, illegal mining (Ghana is one the top producer of gold), oil and growing population. The CO2 emission is in steady increase – not that this would be an index of sustainable growth rather the contrary- but indicates the country is increasingly active on the industrial, transportation and construction fronts. So overall Ghana is doing “well”. Still we found several important issues:

  1. Rising cost of living
  2. Poverty (28.5% below poverty line in 2007 est., source)
  3. Mining pollution impacting water quality (heavy metals)
  4. Oil Industry impacting fishing industry
  5. Whales death 

These 3 last points in bold can partly be addressed with Protei.

Lack of Oil Spill Preparedness

Uploaded on 8 Jan 2012, source: Christiane Badgley,

I recommend watching 2 short movies of May 2011 about “Fish VS Oil” Part 1 (2’32) , Part 2 (3’36) communities or this longer and more detailled documentary (22 minutes, Dec 2012) . Several reports indicates that Ghana lack oil spill monitoring and cleaning capability: Bloomberg, Ghana News Agency, even if the EPA claims having a sufficient contingency plan. Either way Protei could really contribute to early oil spillage detection and clean up.

SINOPEC Chinese fortress

SINOPEC Chinese camp

At the top of the hill above the fishermen’s village, there is… a chinese castle! SINOPEC is installing a large pipeline along the coastline.
SINOPEC Chinese camp
Inside, a real garden of eden with multiple fountains. We were told that about 100 skilled chinese engineers and workers live here. Many Ghanians seem to be unhappy with the chinese presence and feel their natural ressources are being exploited by foreigners. As a half-asian person, I wonder why Ghanians do not build their own castles and garden of Eden… And why Ghanian authorities let chinese operate at a scale they do not feel comfortable with? Quickly after we got in, the SINOPEC security agents came, asked us to delete our photographs and leave.

Tullow Oil


Tullow is the largest Oil Industry operating in Ghana on the main Oil Field called the Jubilee Oil Field. We visited their headquarters and attempted speaking to their environmental department without success. We are in email communication now. Below are the concessions of the Jubilee oil & gas field:

  1. Tullow Oil – 35.48%
  2. Kosmos Energy – 24.1% (Article about Kosmos investing 1B to develop Ghanian Oil Fields)
  3. Anadarko – 23.4%
  4. Ghana National Petroleum Corporation – 10%
  5. Sabre Oil & Gas – 4.05%

According to the locals we met, the annual turnover of several of these companies are many times the turnover of the whole country of Ghana.

Ministry of Energy

Thanks to Faustine Araba Boakye of the International Clean Cooking Association, we were able to meet Kofi Agyarko.

EPA Environmental Protection Agency

At the EPA we were able to speak to Ebenezer K Appah-Sampong, Director Planning, Programming, Monitoring & Education.

Ministry of Fisheries

At the Ministry of Fisheries, we spoke to:

  • Director: Samuel Quartey
  • Director of Marine Fisheries: Mathilda Quist
  • Marine Fisheries Research Division: Paul Bannerman
  • Field researchers: Joseph Seboah, Richster Nii Amarfio, Noble Wadzah, George Awudi 

On the wall of the Ministries of fisheries we could read some press cuts: the World Bank is running a program (among many in Ghana) worth US$ 53.80  million. It is labelled as “loan and credit“. Below is the program abstract:

The development objective of the First Phase of the West Africa Regional Fisheries Program Project is to support the sustainable management of Ghana’s fish and aquatic resources by: (i) strengthening the country’s capacity to sustainably govern and manage the fisheries; (ii) reducing illegal fishing; (iii) increasing the value and profitability generated by the fish resources and the proportion of that value captured by the country; and (iv) developing aquaculture. There are five components to the project. The first component of the project is good governance and sustainable management of the fisheries. This component aims to build the capacity of the Government and stakeholders to develop and implement policies through a shared approach that would ensure that the fish resources are used in a manner that is environmentally sustainable, socially equitable and economically profitable. The second component of the project is reduction of illegal fishing. The component aims to reduce the illegal fishing activities threatening the sustainable management of the country’s fish resources. The third component of the project is increasing the contribution of the fish resources to the national economy. The component aims to identify and implement measures to increase the benefits to Ghana from the fish resources, by increasing the share of the value-added captured in the country. The fourth component of the project is aquaculture development. The component aims to set the framework for increased investment in inland aquaculture. The fifth component of the project is regional coordination, monitoring and evaluation and project management. The component aims to support project implementation and regional coordination with the project, ensuring that regular monitoring and evaluation is conducted, and the results are fed back into decision-making and project management. Administrated by Berengere P. C. Prince.

The program started in July 2011 and will end in December 2017. This is a very important information. There is capital to carry on all these tasks, clear objectives and deadlines.

University of Ghana, Professor Christopher Gordon

Professor Gordon is the most scientifically educated and creative person we met in the country.
Prof Gordon mentioned that Protei might be an interesting device to deploy in Lake Volta, but also the many lagoons to study oxygen levels, redox potential, sedimentation and other environmental parameters. Lagoons tend to accumulate land-borne pollution in particular heavy metals from mining. We are interested to build a pilot proposal with Prof Gordon and use University of Ghana as our base when we come to Ghana. A topic that we are also interested is the interaction between the oil and the fishing industry when it comes to environment.

Center for Environmental Impact Analysis, Samuel Obiri

With the sharp mind of Samuel Obiri, an independent researcher, we wrapped all the discussions we had with the different ministries and stakeholders. Mr Obiri explained us what is the relationship between the scientific and the legal as well as the business sides of the oil exploitation in Ghana. We discussed the level of oil spill preparedness and the expected involvement of fishermen in the event of an oil spill.
An important observation was that

  1. fishermen are currently the most at loss with the development of the oil industry and
  2. if an oil spill was to happen, they would be on the frontline to clean up and suffer the heaviest health, mental, environmental social and economic damages. 

This is also what I experienced when working on the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We then pondered:

  • What are the biggest risks?
  • Consequently, what are the most valuable data sets to be found?

Samuel Obiri has published the most comprehensive measurements of oil pollution in Ghana that I could find, compiled here in a pdf [6mb].

Networking at Hub Accra

It was great to have a sneak preview of the burgeoning startup culture in Ghana. We met a lot of cool people at the freshly built co-working space in Accra. Just to mention a few:


In a very short amount of time, we have been capable of meeting most of the key stakeholders of the oil and the fishing industry, from ministry representatives to local fishermen, from University researchers to independent environmental consulting agencies. The challenges that Ghana is facing in terms of environmental impact of the oil industry, the apparent lack of preparedness to oil spill, the lack of environmental data about water quality and fish stock suggests that Protei could really make a difference in Ghana. The low cost, open source, modular, transparent nature of Protei appealed to all the people we talked to. There is therefore a case for coming back to Ghana with Protei.
The main difficulty now is the definition of a strategy for raising funds to address these issues.
If we run a pilot, which stakeholders shall we involve?

  • Fishermen
  • Academia: University of Ghana, ASESHI, OUWA, AITI, foreign Universities
  • Politics: EPA, Ministries of Food & Agriculture & Technology, Fisheries 
  • Non-Profit: KITE, Local fishermen associations
  • Diplomacy (as we are a foreign company)
  • Military (permission and some deployment infrastructure)

And the criteria for us to determine the feasability of such pilot would be :

  • What: Relevancy and urgency of the topic
  • How: What Protei can do well and add significant value to
  • How much: What is affordable and profitable for all the stakeholders

We are now in the phase of “Pilot Proposal Development” and we are happy to involve anyone that feel they can contribute to the discussion.

Read more

20130311 Kochi, India

This is why I was excited about India :)

What we found was not that different at the DREAM HOTEL in Kochi ! ;) More lasers perhaps :)
Protei a Kochi, India

Protei a Kochi, India
We did our presentation in a campus that’s in the middle of the construction process. I felt great energy and excitement.

Protei a Kochi, India
India opens its doors wide open to the Silicon valley spirit.

We dream of a day when the sun sets at dusk of the silicon valley it would rise to see the the dawn of a silicon coast in India.

Instead of diving into the “startup India” in Bangalore as Gabriella did (posts of Gabriella Levine 1, 2, 3 in Bangalore) , I focused on buying supply to build more Protei prototypes for the rest of the voyage. That means a lot of scooting around again.
Protei a Kochi, India

I really enjoyed discovering indian ingenuity and all the local craftsmen.

Kochi with a bike
I enjoyed the colourful markets…

Kochi with a bike
But also noticed piles of detritus everywhere in the streets, that ends in the sewage, untreated. Many times we saw the public servants cleaning the congested sewage lines.

Kochi Polluted river
Very bad news for Kochi. It’s waters are devastated. I never saw darker waters. Water in public rivers is like ink!

Polluted waters in Kochi, Kerala, India
That’s another part of the city. Same observation. Appalling.
We did not have / or taken the time to study in depth water pollution in India.

It is also revealing that it is a Chinese media NTDTV that seem to be concerned about pollution India, chinese acting as a regional environmental whistleblower, interestingly.

India is facing immense challenges when it comes to water quality. Its most sacred river is one of the world most polluted river. Are the gods polluting or are indians responsible for their sacred rivers?

To know why 1,000 Indian children die of diarrhoeal sickness every day, take a wary stroll along the Ganges in Varanasi. As it enters the city, Hinduism’s sacred river contains 60,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 100 millilitres, 120 times more than is considered safe for bathing. Four miles downstream, with inputs from 24 gushing sewers and 60,000 pilgrim-bathers, the concentration is 3,000 times over the safety limit. In places, the Ganges becomes black and septic. Corpses, of semi-cremated adults or enshrouded babies, drift slowly by.
Source: The Economist on December 11, 2008

The world treasure Taj Mahal is bordered by the Yamuna river that western journalists have qualified as “a putrid ribbon of black sludge.”

Its level of fecal bacteria is 10,000 times higher than what’s deemed safe for bathing. After a half-billion-dollar, 15-year program to build 17 sewage treatment plants, raw sewage still spills into the river at the rate of 3.6 billion liters a day.

India has a limited set of legal safeguards to protect it’s most vital asset, water.

By 2050, India is expected to become the world most populous country, with 1,523,482,000 people, that is an increase of 24.4% between 2000 and 2050.  The pressure on rivers and the negative impact on fisheries is not going to decrease any time soon. I hope to come back to India and help with Protei.

Gabriella presented Protei in Bangalore and had a lot of positive response, in particular from game developers and mobile app developers that are very excited about Protei being used as an augmented reality networking game. Can you imagine? A regatta of Protei boats equipped with android phones, controlled via the web browser with real-time video feedback racing, collaborating to solve complex real-world issues! Having fun while collecting environmental data? Earning money from clean up in the water while playing, well that’s rather exciting to the people we met and to us.

Protei in Kochi Kerala India

India has a great entrepreneur movement and huge number of environmental issues. Can we pair these two together?

I found fiberglass, resin, wood, glue, plastic, microspheres and many other supplies to build more prototypes.
forbiden access
Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to get this fabrication supply on board. That was painful to spend so many days looking for these chemicals, parts, materials and not being allowed. Cannot wait to have our own workshop on land, manufacture Protei and come back to India where Protei is so needed! Good bye India, we’ll see each other again soon!

20130218 Vietnam, Croire ou Douter?

Saigon's friends

First thing we did in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) was to meet with my old friend Truc-Anh and his girlfriend Penelope Cadeau in a typical street cafe. Meeting with familiar people in a new city makes a new city familiar. From left to right: hand of Olimpia Meija Corliss, Matt Corliss, Truc Anh, Penelope Cadeau. I’ve known Truc-Anh for 10 years, we were together in school at the Ecole Boulle in Paris before he moved to study circus, dance, painting and now he’s doing more and more photography. Penelope is doing delicate fashion accessory under the label “La fiancée du facteur”, modelling and many other things creative. Truc-Anh is of Vietnamese origins, but it is Penelope that convinced him to come back to this booming city.

“Croire, Douter” – “Believe, Doubt” – what he calls a “GAME OF FAITH”, that may be playing with your own mind like playing with fire, an installation that was part of an impressive personal exhibition in Vietnam’s best art gallery, Galerie Quynh.
Truc Anh recommended us a scooter rental for a week with an acquaintance of him and off we went.

Natural Artificial, Artificial Natural

We enjoyed a lot scooting around Vietnam, Saigon has the highest density of motorised 2 wheelers in the world. People were kind given they were not in a hurry. Most young people spoke english, really old people spoke french and were very engaging. For Protei, we explored 2 sites in particular :

  1. One pond that used to be natural natural and sane, in the middle of the city and is getting “annihilated” by the residents. 
  2. One lake that did not exist, that was created because of a hydroelectric dam and that is now protected as a natural reserve. 

Case study 1: “Natural to Artificial”, Phường 2, Quận 4, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I was looking for an urban lake, to study how the local residents interact with their local waters, what’s the cultural and historical relationship of Vietnamese and their water. I had the intuition that Saigon, with it’s fast growing economic activity and population might have incurred a lot of stress on such urban bodies of water.  I was interested in a small pond in Phuong 2, Quan 4 and made a quick research, found historical maps of Saigon from 1815, 1920, 1975 and today 2013: it looked like the pond had been shrinking dramatically for about a century.

1815 Saigon map 1920 Saigon Map1947 Saigon Map1975 Saigon Map1975 Saigon Map2013 Saigon map 22013 Saigon map 5

I made it into a small video, I have no rights on the original images, for research purpose only.

I wanted to verify the facts, so we scooted there. It was not straight forward to find this pond as it is literally in the residents’ backyards.  We started to get lost in the maze of the narrow streets, and started feeling awkward being the only foreigners in the area with a backpack mounted with a strange sailing robot. I was growing concerned we would not find any water. By luck, a woman came to us, speaking good english with an australian accent. She was in her 30s and walking around with her young daughter. She explained us that she was born here. That the place has changed a lot. She told us that as a child she enjoyed multiple clean ponds, in which they were playing, bathing, fishing, cleaning their laundry. She said that about 20 years ago they started using detergents for cleaning, more people came to live in the area, started to throw away their garbage in the water, plastic things. Kids would not longer play in the water and the trend became worse as many people from other cities or from the countryside -transient avid population- converged to Ho Chi Minh in hope of a better future.

What we saw was a single dark, smelly, murky stream. Semi stagnant water loaded with detritus. Some slow bubbling from the bottom of the water suggested there might still be some life still in the water.

Protei in Vietnam

Matt Corliss in Phường 2, Quận 4, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Case study 2: “Artificial to Natural”, Hồ Trị An, Dong Nai province, Vietnam

We were  looking for a large body of water to test Protei. The sea was too far, and our prototype not quite rugged enough for the scooter ride nor for the waves. We looked at a location we could go and come back by scooter the same day. The Tri An Lake was that location.  We drove about 2 hours north and arrived on the lake. It was fun testing Protei for about one hour.

Protei in Vietnam

As you may see on the picture, there was no wind at all, the only navigation that we could do was assisted by human pull with a long line.

When we approached the lake I realised that some of the river streams had been constrained and dried out. We passed some hydroelectric installations so I deducted that we were in presence of a large artificial reserve.

Tri An Reservoir (Ho Tri An), a large artificial lake fed from the forest highlands around Dalat and created by the Tri An Dam. Completed in the early 1980s with Soviet assistance, the dam and its adjoining hydroelectric station supplies the bulk of HCMC’s electric power.
Source : “Vietnam” By Nick Ray, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow.

As I was guessing this, we passed a sign saying “Natural Reserve”. We were in presence of a man-made natural reserve.

What we learnt


  1. Protei huge side force: I was amazed when pulling Protei by its most bow point, pulling from the side, it would still be sailing forward very steadily. Great news for how much we can control the machine.
  2. Urge to make transport easier with a smaller rugged unit: as the photo underneath suggests, taking Protei on a scooter is not the safest thing we have done. At time Protei would act as a wing and destabilise the ride.  
  3. Smaller unit would mean no extra ballast needed: a smaller and lighter unit would make it so much more convenient to take on the field. The weight of the battery might suffice as ballast. We had to stop on the side of the road to add stones and sand into the lowest tube of the prototype. 
  4. Need to simplify the procedure to wire and adjust the machine: as the sun was declining, we were in panic for wiring the prototype in low light. We need to make it simpler to wire and adjust the machine as it is running.
  5. The machine needs to be more agile in low wind conditions: This region seems to be notorious for its low winds, no waves and shallow waters. If we translate that into naval architecture, that means a larger sail surface (to catch more wind), a shallower but heavier ballasted keel (for shallow water, while compensating for a larger surface of sail).

Relevancy for Vietnam environmental, health and economic challenges

My goal in this article is to identify Vietnam’s challenges and see how I/we/Protei can contribute.

It does not take long searching the internet to find the plethora of water-related issues in Vietnam. A selection of quotes and issues.

Agriculture and industry pollution damage water quality and public health:

Up to 80% of diseases in Vietnam are caused by polluted water resources, said the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment at a ceremony in Hanoi Mar. 23 to mark the World Water Day and 60th birthday of the World Meteorological Organization. Around six million Vietnamese people have contracted one of six water-related diseases over the past four years. The expenditures for cholera, typhoid, dysentery and malaria check-ups and treatment are estimated at VND400 billion ($20.9 million). Climate change and rising sea levels will affect water resources and will be challenges for Vietnam to deal with in the coming years as the Southeast Asian country is listed among fiver countries that will be the hardest hit. Up to 1,000 communes in Vietnam’s Red River and Mekong Delta regions are facing high risks of arsenic-contained water sources. Vietnam has 180 processing and industrial zones, 12,259 healthcare facilities, 72,012 enterprises, which discharge hundreds of untreated wastewater cubic meters into its rivers a day.
Source: NGO Center 2013,


It is reported that only 39% of the rural population has access to safe water and sanitation. The rural population has moved from using surface water from shallow dug wells to groundwater pumped from private tube wells. In the Northern region of Vietnam around Hanoi, there is evidence of arsenic contamination in the drinking water. About 7 million people living in this area have a severe risk of arsenic poisoning and since elevated levels of arsenic can cause cancer, neurological and skin problems, this is a serious issue.
It is without doubt that agriculture has the largest burden on water resources in Vietnam. Vietnam is one of the richest agricultural regions in the world and a top producer and consumer of rice. Currently, water used for agriculture purposes take up over 80% of total water production. Paddy rice is the primary crop that takes up a majority of the total irrigated area. Fisheries, aquaculture, industries and services also contribute to water demand increase.
Water resources are very significant, especially natural water sources in the rural areas of Vietnam as they are the sources of economic, social and cultural activities.

Image above: Geographical connection between industrial zones and protected areas in Dong Nai River Bassin.

When it comes to the Tri An Lake that we visited, it is at the heart of the economic, health and environmental future of the country as WWF program executant Jacob Fjalland explains very well. More immediate health threat may come specifically from:

Seven strains of cyanobacteria from Tri An Reservoir, a drinking water reservoir for millions of people in Southern Vietnam, were isolated, cultivated, identified and described.
Source: “Toxic cyanobacteria from Tri An Reservoir, Vietnam”, 2010, N. Thanh Son Dao, Gertrud Cronberg, Jorge Nimptsch, Do-Hong Lan-Chi, Claudia Wiegand.

Agent Orange
We saw quite a few disabled people in the streets of Saigon. Limbless, or deformed. We asked if there was a known reason to their disability. “Agent Orange” was the immediate answer. Everybody knows about it and as tourism grows in Vietnam, the victims (not the heroes) of the war are removed from touristic area, deported outside of the city or abandoned by their families to themselves.

It is only since 2012, a few months ago, that the USA has officially started taking responsibility for Agent Orange in Vietnam and started cleaning up the horror they have spread on Vietnam.  This New York Times article by Thomas Fuller dated from August 2012 narrates how the cleanup is being implemented 4 decades too late. The World Bank publishes about the topic relevant information.
This is the areas concerned. Pretty much an entire nation intentionally poisoned.
Agent Orange spray over Vietnam 1965 1971

If you are interested, I encourage you watching this 22 minutes documentary and taking action. I take action by working on deploying Protei in Vietnam to track Agent Orange. If you are interested in helping with this, if you know the appropriate water sensors, please get in touch with me.


In June 2010, Vietnam announced that it plans to build 14 nuclear reactors at eight sites in five provinces by 2030, to satisfy at least 15 GW nuclear power (i.e. 10% share) of the estimated total demand of 112 GW. An ambitious strategy to increase the nuclear share to 20-25% by 2050 has also been outlined.


Companies including Westinghouse, AtomStroyExport, Electricité de France, and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group (CGNPC) have all been involved in discussions about supplying nuclear plants to Vietnam, and South Korea has also expressed an interest in the project. Vietnam has signed nuclear cooperation and assistance agreements with countries including Japan, France, China, South Korea, the USA and Canada.

I will spare you videos of the health effects in Chernobyl, Pripyat after the nuclear accident.
Most nuclear power plants envisioned for Vietnam are going to exposed to a medium-level Tsunami threat. Does it ring a bell? Japan engineers are now teaching their Vietnamese peers how to secure their installations being themselves incapable of  containing the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in their home country.

Global Earthquake since 1973 and Nuclear Power Plant locations
Above is the combined map of nuclear power plants (blue dots) and Seismic activity (heatmap), made by MapTD with data from United States Geological Survey and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As there is no nuclear power plant in Vietnam yet, it is necessary to map the radioactivity levels in the country,  establishing a baseline for future measurements, to keep the industry in check and provide reliable data to decision makers.

Is nuclear the only way to power Vietnam? If you have the shadow of a doubt, I invite you to read the very optimistic Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute website:

Read more :

Conclusion: Protei use in Vietnam

To me the whole story is an absurd plot.

  1. In the past Vietnam has been the victim of Agent Orange and is still suffering today its horrifying effects. 
  2. In the present Vietnam is developing its industry and agriculture out of control, destroying what made its health and wealth.
  3. For its future Vietnam is determined to establish the most dangerous energy producing process predominantly on its coastline that is vulnerable to tsunami.


In the city of Saigon, we have visited a natural cluster of ponds that is being destroyed by the residents.
One hour north of Saigon we have visited a man-made reservoir that is now considered a natural reserve.
What was once a natural resource has been destroyed ; a man-made resource is now labelled “natural reserve”.
How does this make sense?

As described in this article Protei could be deployed in Vietnam for a variety of applications:

  • Measurements of agricultural and industrial pollution in water, heavy metals detection
  • Study of toxic cyanobacteria in the drinking reservoir
  • Water quality monitoring for tourism in lakes and on the shore
  • Agent orange tracking in lakes to avoid further contamination
  • Radioactivity baseline mapping before installation of power plants
  • Earthquake and tsunami alert system offshore (Vietnam initiated it’s own tsunami alert system in 2011

According to the discussion we had with local entrepreneurs, bureaucracy and the process of getting permission may slow down our progress. On the other hand Vietnam has a fast growing educated population that is made of curious, hard working young minds. We have been advised to focus on educational channel and working in harmony with local authorities to build trust and capacity. Protei INC manufacturing is going to be located in the Hong Kong region, not far at all from Vietnam, so we hope to be back in the region soon.

“Croire, Douter?”, Believe or Doubt? What is the future of Vietnam? What is certain is that Vietnam, the small Asian Dragon will keep growing. What we do not know is how it will grow. Vietnamese people are admirably resilient and resourceful people. Will they destroy their country trying to make it “great”? Does sustainable growth even exist?

We may become the makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets.
Source: Karl Popper

20130117 Sampling plastic debris in Hilo, Hawaii. Unreasonable Media Episode 2

Previous post on the same topic :

Special thanks to Dr Hank Carson, Dr Markus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, great meeting you all, and thanks for your guidance.