Microplastics (MPs) have been found in aqueous environments ranging from rural ponds and lakes to the deep ocean. Despite the ubiquity of MPs, our ability to characterize MPs in the environment is limited by the lack of technologies for rapidly and accurately identifying and quantifying MPs. Although standards exist for MP sample collection and preparation, methods of MP analysis vary considerably and produce data with a broad range of data content and quality. The need for extensive analysis-specific sample preparation in current technology approaches has hindered the emergence of a single technique which can operate on aqueous samples in the field, rather than on dried laboratory preparations. In this perspective, we consider MP measurement technologies with a focus on both their eventual field-deployability and their respective data products (e.g., MP particle count, size, and/or polymer type). We present preliminary demonstrations of several prospective MP measurement techniques, with an eye towards developing a solution or solutions that can transition from the laboratory to the field. Specifically, experimental results are presented from multiple prototype systems that measure various physical properties of MPs: pyrolysis-differential mobility spectroscopy, short-wave infrared imaging, aqueous Nile Red labeling and counting, acoustophoresis, ultrasound, impedance spectroscopy, and dielectrophoresis.
Keywords: analytical chemistry; aqueous solutions; environment; freshwater; marine pollution; microplastics; ocean; plastic pollution; polymers; sensors; water.