A new type of ocean contamination sensor could speed up detection of dangerous oil spills

Smart floating sensors to detect early oil leaks on sea

Spanish researchers have developed an intelligent system of floating wirelessly connected sensors that can detect even very low concentrations of toxic pollutants in the ocean. 

The sensor system, created by a team from the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), has so far been tested in laboratory conditions but the researchers believe it can spot contamination immediately and even locate and determine the size of the polluted area.

Early detection is particularly important in the case of oil spills, where clear-up operations need to start as early as possibly to prevent damaging consequences to the ecosystem.

“Different chemical pollutants require different techniques for their clean-up,” said Jaime Lloret from UPV’s Research Institute for Integrated Management of Coastal Areas. “But the single most important factor for minimising the impact and damages to the affected area is how quickly it is detected. This is particularly critical in the case of oil spills, where a full clean-up is virtually impossible if decontamination efforts don’t start immediately.”

The system consists of a wirelessly connected network of floating devices equipped with hydrocarbon sensors. Using a sophisticated set of algorithms, the system compiles data from the sensors as they are moving through a body of water.

“The nodes use the real-time data collected via their hydrocarbon sensors and their relative positions to seek out the edges of the spill, the point where it meets non-contaminated water, explained Lloret. “By doing so the system is able to provide information as to the exact location and extent of the spill.”

The researchers hope the system could help improve the condition of global oceans struggling with pollution. Any damage to marine ecosystems, which represent an important source of food for the global population, has adverse effects on human health as well as on the economy.

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