dirty water sample

British engineers develop ultra-efficient dirty water sensor to identify contaminants

Image credit: bath uni

A low-cost, portable and user-friendly multi-sensing device for detecting contaminants in dirty water has been developed by British engineers.

The device has been specifically designed to help protect vulnerable communities in Colombia from unsafe water.

The device not only provides a simple and real-time way of testing water systems, it can also simultaneously upload the findings to a web-based platform via a mobile app.

The online resource stores the information and visualises the sampling location on a map. The acquired data is public and can be accessed anytime from anywhere in the world.

Developed by academics at the University of Bath and Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, the device measures four key physico-chemical variables in water including pH levels, conductivity, temperature and dissolved oxygen.

It also monitors the presence of heavy metals in water, including mercury.

The South American country is the third most mercury-contaminated country in the world, largely due to intense illegal metal mining.

The mercury significantly pollutes the water and sediments of rivers, including parts of the River Amazon.

The pollution builds up in the food chain, primarily within fish consumed by local people, but it can also reach fruit and vegetables through irrigation.

In the dry season, river water becomes the major source of drinking water in many areas and particularly affects rural indigenous communities.

There are high rates of mercury-related diseases resulting in foetus malformations and brain disorders, the rates of which are increasing every year.

The multi-sensing device was tested with the indigenous community of the Resguardo Santa Sofia, located at the southern tip of the Amazonas region of Colombia.

The research team spent nearly three weeks in the Amazon testing the sensor to ensure it met their needs and was easy to use.

Project leader Dr Mirella Di Lorenzo, from the University of Bath, said: “Due to the lack of financial resources and technology, communities like Santa Sofia in the Amazon have no means of checking if the water they are surrounded by is safe to use.

“This multi-sensing device can have a massive impact to these communities, allowing them to easily check if the water they are using is safe to do so.”

The researchers expect that by being able to map out areas of water affected by mercury as well as providing users with key water variable readings, this approach will help prevent the spread of water-borne diseases.

Their vision is that communities are empowered with a means of testing a water supply themselves while the authorities are provided with evidence of water affected by illegal mining, allowing them to act and mitigate this activity.

The researchers are now aiming to further improve the device by making it more intuitive and smaller and making it easier to be used by rural communities.

Last year, researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia demonstrated a material mesh created using a mix of metal and polymer that could generate hydrogen and fresh water from wastewater. 

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