Home > NOAA Internships > Microplastics Characterization Using a Novel Method of Pyrolysis GC-MS
Internship Opportunity

Microplastics Characterization Using a Novel Method of Pyrolysis GC-MS

Posted on: 12/14/2018

Summary / Description

Plastics are contaminants of emerging concern that are accumulating at increasing rates in the marine and freshwater ecosystems. Some scientists refer to plastics as the next predator of wildlife. Because of the sun and the wave energy, the plastics tend to break down into smaller particles, called the microplastics of grain size lower than 5 mm. Microplastics also enter the aquatic environments directly from a variety of sources, including the cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes. Microplastics are a cause for concern because their size range overlaps with the preferred particle size ingested by the animals at the base of the aquatic food webs. The student will be provided an opportunity to learn how to characterize microplastics polymer types by using a novel method of pyrolysis gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). In this method, a small piece of microplastic sample, less than 1 milligram in weight, is placed in a narrow quartz tube which is then placed in a platinum coil and heated to 750 degrees C. The intense heat breaks down the large plastic polymer chain into smaller fragments. The pyrolytic fragmentation patterns are reproducible and unique to a given polymer type. These fragments are then transferred to and separated on a gas chromatographic column, and identified using a mass spectrometer. The student will analyze a few representative polymer standards to learn the process of peak identification and matching the peaks with the pyrolysis GC-MS library of different polymers we have created for some of the most commonly used plastics polymers. After learning the peak fingerprinting technique, next step in this effort will be the characterization of the unweathered plastic items and the weathered field samples. Understanding the nature of microplastics is critical to the identification, and possibly the regulation and mitigation of sources of plastics that can impact the quality of bivalve and fish habitats, as well as that of the aquaculture facilities. As different types of plastics exert different toxicities by themselves, and as in addition they adsorb different levels of chemical contaminants, the knowledge of polymer composition is important in the understanding of the fisheries risk assessment. Depending upon student’s interest and availability, participation in other microplastics experiments is encouraged.

Skills Required

Either an undergraduate or a graduate student with a basic knowledge of chemistry and environmental science


Sandy Hook, New Jersey

Other Information

Intern Supervisor:
Ashok Deshpande
Number of Slots Available:
Is free housing available:
Can international students be placed:


NCCOS delivers ecosystem science solutions for stewardship of the nation’s ocean and coastal resources to sustain thriving coastal communities and economies.

Stay Connected with NCCOS

Sign up for our quarterly newsletter or view our archives.