Automated analysis is revolutionizing the detection of microplastic concentrations

Researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have made significant strides in addressing the prevalence of microplastics in the environment, drinking water, and food. With particle sizes under 5 millimeters, microplastics pose environmental concerns due to their ability to absorb and transport contaminants and toxins.

To detect these particles, the researchers encountered challenges, including low concentrations. In river water, plastic constitutes less than 1 percent of particles, necessitating their isolation for precise analysis of concentrations and chemical composition. Traditional methods, which rely on sample heating and analysis of residues, fail to provide information on particle number, size, and shape.

The breakthrough came with a particle-based approach, as described by Dr. Natalia Ivleva. Instead of destroying the particles, the researchers directly analyze them using Raman microspectroscopy. By shining a monochromatic laser onto the sample and detecting the scattered light, they can identify specific plastics like polyethylene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride based on their unique scattering patterns.

The process evolved from manual measurements to an automated one, drastically reducing analysis time. The software developed by the team now handles most steps, including filtering the particles from the aqueous solution and positioning the filter under the Raman microspectroscope. By localizing, photographing, and

measuring the plastic particles with a light microscope, the software computes the number of particles and fibers, ensuring a statistically significant outcome in the subsequent Raman spectroscopy.

The innovative approach opens new possibilities in the ongoing fight against microplastic pollution and enhances our understanding of its prevalence and impact on our environment and health.

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