The Spectacular Challenge -Micro-plastic fibres and microscopes

Information is given in the following sections

Why look for micro-plastic fibres?

Why the fibres, not all micro-plastics?

What you will need

What is the Spectacular Challenge?

Why involve young scientists?

Get started

What is a microscope?

How to set up a microscope

How to make a microscope

What are micro-plastic fibres?

How to look for micro-plastic fibres

What is the best microscope to use?

Where can you get a microscope?


Why look for micro-plastic fibres?

Micro-plastic fibres are being found all over. In the water we drink, the food we eat, even in our poo!

The scientists have only recently started looking for the fibres and are shocked at the results. The plastic that you can see is causing an environmental and ecological crisis. But what about the plastic we can’t see? The research has not yet been done to show if micro-plastic, in particular the fibres, are causing any lasting damage to our bodies. But there is evidence that they cause damage to some other animals. ……..

At The Young Darwinian, we believe that the next generation of scientists and engineers can make a major impact by working together and collect important data from all over the world. This will help our scientists, researchers, and environmentalists have the evidence to force politicians to take action. But in fact the most important people to educate and persuade to make changes are you, our next generation. Changes will be consumer driven, and you, all around the world, are the consumers who will have influence and impact.

Why micro-plastic fibre not all micro-plastics?

All micro plastics are important. All micro-plastics will be having an effect on our environment. The problem with asking young scientists to look for any form of micro-plastic is that the identification of plastic requires toxic chemical analysis, not easily available, and would require the use of toxic chemicals, not suitable for use by young scientists outside of a real laboratory setup.  

However, micro-plastic fibres are easy to identify, and can be done safely by young people with the appropriate support and advice.

In order to look for the micro-plastic fibres you will need

What is the Spectacular Challenge?

This is a challenge for all of us. 

The aim is to gather data from all over the world on micro-plastic fibres. 

This is indeed a big challenge!

How will we do this?

We will encourage young people from all over the world to look for the micro-plastic fibre in their environment.

The Young Darwinian will support young scientists for the developing world to participate.

The studies will be done in a controlled, uniform protocol.

The results will be submitted to The Young Darwinian who will coordinate and publish the data.

Young scientists from different countries will be connected together with a common purpose.

Why involve young scientists?

Some people will say that this work should be done by professional scientists. 

The Young Darwinian thinks differently. TYD respects the abilities, honesty and integrity of the young scientists around the world. With support, they will produce relevant, quality data, that we must all take notice of. 

So lets get started

*Important* Before you start your experiments, there are two vital things you must do

  1. Ensure that you remain safe. Check out what you plan to do with your parent, teacher or mentor. 
  2. Keep a results book, either written or digital. You will not remember the details of the experiments and your work will be wasted.

Things to make notes on



What is a microscope?

A microscope is an instrument that allows you to see something that is very small, sometimes invisible to the eye. The part of the microscope that makes this possible is the lens. 

What is a lens?

A lens in a microscope is a convex lens and looks like a flattened ball. It is transparent so light will go through it. The lens is usually made from glass or plastic and when the light is bent when it travels through the lens. The rounder, or fatter the lens is, the more it can make something look bigger. 

 other type is called ‘concave’ and the edges are thicker than the middle. 

The simplest convex lens is a droplet of water

There are three things to get right to see clearly in a microscope: Magnification, Focus and Lighting 


How much bigger an object looks is called the magnification. The lens magnifies the object. If the real size of an object is described as ‘one’, and magnification makes the object twice as big, its called ‘times two’, or x2. Magnification can be up to x1000 and more. A good magnification for looking at nature and micro plastic fibres is around twenty times bigger, x20. 


When an object is in focus, you can see it clearly and distinctly. 

If there is only one lens, like in a magnifying glass, to get a clear focus, the lens must be moved up and down until it is in exactly the right placed you can see the object clearly. If there are two lenses in the microscope, the one nearest the eye is usually fixed and the lens nearest the object that we are looking at can move  up and down. 

The lens nearest the eye is called the ‘eye piece lens’. 

The lens nearest the object is called ‘the objective lens’ .

Lighting can be done in three ways: 

Best from above 

To look at something like a dead moth, because the moth is quite thick and does not let light shine through it, it is best looked at with light shining on it from above. If light is shone from below, it looks like a black shadow outline. 

Best from below

To look at something that is very thin and transparent (lets light through), like a dead fly’s wing, use the lighting from below. 

Natural light

Sometimes using just natural light shows up different things on the moth.

 always worth looking at your image all three lighting ways, then choose what’s best.  



A simple microscope

The simplest microscope uses just one lens. The simplest lens is a droplet of water. The next simplest is a magnifying glass. People began to see things using lenses made of water over 600 years ago but no-one really knows who invented the first microscope. In 1670, a man from Holland, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, made an amazing lens himself by polishing glass until it was almost spherical. Using this he got a magnification of up to about x 300 and the invisible world opened up. This is what his microscope looked like.

A Compound microscope

A compound microscope usually has two lenses. One lens is in the eye piece and the other is the one that can be moved up and down. In some microscopes, this  lens can be changed and there is a choice of magnification. To work out the final magnification, multiply the magnification of the two lenses together. For instance if you use two x2 lenses, the final magnification will be 2×2 or 4. Using a x2 and a x5 will give a final magnification of x10, or 10 times bigger. 

Use one eye or two?   Monocular or binocular( stereo)

If there is one eye piece, the microscope is monocular. If there are two eye pieces, it is binocular. It is sometimes easier to see if you are able to look with both eyes. Its also possible to attach a phone camera to one eye piece whilst you look through the other one. If the image comes up onto a computer screen then you have a digital microscope. 

Set up your microscope

If you have a microscope, try and set it up. A video to help you is in preparation and will be posted shortly.

  1. Find something to look at, I found a dead beetle
  2. Put it on the stage, in the centre.
  3. For monocular, look through the eye piece
  4. For binocular, look through the eye pieces. If binocular, sometimes the eye pieces can move together and apart. Make the distance between the eye pieces comfortable for your eyes and when you can see clearly without lots of shadows.
  5. Get the lighting right. If the microscope has in built light , turn on the lighting from above because the object is too thick for light to shine through it from below. If there is a choice of objective lenses, choose the one with least magnification. In this case its x2
  6. Move the objective lens up and down until the beetle comes into focus.
  7. If there is more than one objective lens, turn the mounting and bring the next lens into action, in our case a x4. 

Make your own microscope

The Young Darwinian videos on how to make a microscope are in preparation. Before ours are available, examples of projects on the web are given below. 

***Many of the ideas below use materials and methods that could injure you if not handled safely. Get permission and help from your parent/teacher/mentor before starting the project.***

Using a drop of water as the lens

Using a laser pen

Good description of 3 ways to make microscope using a laser pen

A compound microscope

This example uses two lenses

This example uses water lens and a magnifying glass

Digital microscope

Using a digicam, 

Other sites of interest

Making the phone adapter to take photos of your microscopic images

Multiple ideas

What are micro plastics?

The definition of a micro-plastic is something less than 5 mm* long. Some micro-plastic can be seen with the eye. A grain of rice is about 4mm long and 1.5 mm wide, so these are smaller than some micro-plastics. But the plastic fibres that come from clothing are very difficult to see with the eye. Fibres don’t fit the definition of less than 5mm very well because although they are very much thinner than 5mm, up to a hundred times less than this, they are often much longer than 5 mm.  

Human hair is about 0.1 mm thick so most micro-plastic fibres are thinner than a hair. 

*A millimetre, written ‘mm’ is one thousandth of a metre, or one tenth of a centimetre.

Micro-Plastic can be primary or secondary. 

A primary micro-plastic is one that is purposely made that way, and is less than 5mm long. These include the micro beads that are used in gels, toothpastes and cosmetics. They also include plastic pellets , known as nurdles, that are made and stored as tiny pellets and used by industry to make other plastic objects from. Nurdles are a major source of beach and ocean pollution, especially after accidents when container loads of this plastic spills into the sea. 

Secondary microplastics are made when ‘big plastic’ such as water bottles and plastic bags, break up into smaller and smaller pieces. Unfortunately they never disappear completely. They are often made by the actions of the weather or the sea and they accumulate in the oceans. 

Micro-plastic fibre can be both primary and secondary. Primary fibres are made that way in the first place before the fibres get made into clothing or fishing nets. These often escape into the environment. The fibres can be secondary as well, when the fibre comes out of your teeshirt or fleece during a wash. 

How to look for micro-plastic fibres

Available shortly

What is the best microscope to use to see micro-plastics?

Available shortly

Where you can buy a microscope?

Available shortly


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