Merging holography, fluorescence, and machine learning for in situ, continuous characterization and classification of airborne microplastics
Abstract. The continued increase in global plastic production and poor waste management ensures that plastic pollution is a serious environmental concern for years to come. Because of their size, shape, and relatively low density, plastic particles between 1–1000 μm in size (known as microplastics, or MPs) emitted directly into the environment (“primary”) or created due to degradation (“secondary”) may be transported through the atmosphere, similar to other coarse-mode particles, such as mineral dust. MPs can thus be advected over great distances, reaching even the most pristine and remote areas of the Earth, and may have significant negative consequences for humans and the environment. The detection and analysis of MPs once airborne, however, remains a challenge because most observational methods are offline and resource-intensive, and, therefore, are not capable of providing continuous quantitative information.
In this study, we present results using an online, in situ airflow cytometer (SwisensPoleno Jupiter; Swisens AG; Emmen, Switzerland) – coupled with machine learning – to detect, analyze, and classify airborne, single-particle MPs in near real time. The performance of the instrument to differentiate single-particle MPs of five common polymer types (including polypropylene, polyethylene, polyamide, poly(methyl methacrylate), and polyethylene terephthalate) was investigated under laboratory conditions using combined information about their size and shape (determined using holographic imaging) and fluorescence measured using three excitation wavelengths and five emission detection windows. The classification capability using these methods was determined alongside other coarse-mode aerosol particles with similar morphology or fluorescence characteristics, such as a mineral dust and several pollen taxa.
The tested MPs exhibit a measurable fluorescence signal that not only allows them to be distinguished from the other fluorescent particles, such as pollen, but can also be differentiated from each other, with high (> 90 %) classification accuracy based on their multispectral fluorescence signatures. The classification accuracies of machine learning models using only holographic images of particles, only the fluorescence response, and combined information from holography and fluorescence to predict particle type are presented and compared. The results provide a foundation towards significantly improving the understanding of the properties and types of MPs present in the atmosphere.
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