Electronic bugging of the water variety (Day 79)

Electronic bugging of the water variety (Day 79)

14th August 2014

Current water monitoring can be costly, time-consuming and require technical expertise.

Sharing new technology and developments, and making sure there is greater equality in its use across the world, requires political commitment.

But, arguably, making technological advancements that are affordable, especially for developing countries, is essential if it is to be deployed on a global scale.

So, I was really encouraged to read a story this week about something important to all of us - a new lower cost way of testing for water pollution and checking the quality of drinking water.

The work is being led by an IChemE accredited University - the University of Bath in collaboration with Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of the West of England.

Current methods of detecting pollutants in water can be costly, time-consuming and require specialist technical expertise. In many nations and communities these resources and expertise simply do not exist.

However, the research team say they have created a low cost sensor using 3D printing technology that can be used directly in rivers and lakes for continuous water quality monitoring.

The sensor contains bacteria that produce a small measurable electric current as they feed and grow. The researchers found that when the bacteria are disturbed by coming into contact with toxins in the water, the electric current drops, alerting to the presence of pollutants in the water. Clever stuff.

Dr Mirella Di Lorenzo, a lecturer in chemical engineering at Bath, explained: "When the bacteria feed in a microbial fuel cell, they convert chemical energy into electrical energy that we can measure.

"We found that when we injected a pollutant into the water there was an immediate drop in the electric current they produced. The drop was proportional to the amount of toxin present and the current is recovered once the toxin levels fell.

"This means we are able to monitor the level of pollutants in the water in real time without having to collect multiple samples and take them to a laboratory.

"Because this system uses live bacteria, it acts a bit like a canary in a mine, showing how these chemicals affect living organisms."

Other methods of detecting water pollutants involve mass spectrometry which is a very sensitive process but requires expensive specialist equipment and expertise, so is unsuitable for routine widespread water monitoring, and impossible in some of the developing countries that need this technology most.

In many countries and communities, for the foreseeable future, water monitoring is only likely to succeed with reliable and affordable community-level surveillance systems.

This latest development from England has the ability to empower communities and people by giving them the tools and knowledge to monitor the quality of their own water sources and protect their own health.

Congratulations to everyone involved.