Elhuyar Fundazioa - Basque Research

Next-generation analysis systems for controlling water quality

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Knowing whether the water in our reservoirs is contaminated by a specific bacterium or if the river passing through our town contains an excessive amount of heavy metals is vital when confronting environmental or public health problems. To this end it is necessary to have a network of analysis systems which measures the chemical and biological parameters of these water sources.

Current devices have a number of limitations conditioning their use, such as their cost and their life/range. In order to meet these challenges, the European Union has launched a research project known as NAPES (Next Generation Analytical Platforms for Environmental Sensing), the aim of which is to generate knowledge to enable producing next-generation analysis systems with microfluid technology based on intelligent materials.

This project, in which the Basque microtechnology research centre, CIC microGUNE, is taking part, together with seven other European bodies, aims to develop a functional prototype by mid-2017, enabling controlling the quality of fresh water more thoroughly than with current methods.

The NAPES project arose from concerns within the EU about ensuring the quality of its water supplies and thus aimed at developing better systems than the conventional ones. It should be remembered that the contamination of rivers is one of the most serious environmental problems facing the Basque Country, and confronting Europe in general.

The systems of analysis currently employed are very costly: one unit within the system can cost up to 20,000 euros, making its use prohibitive. One of the principal goals of this project is precisely to develop technology enabling radically cutting the costs of these systems.

Lower production costs will enable installing more points of analysis than is currently feasible. In the case of a river, for example, the more analysis systems installed along its length, the more information there will be about its state at each point and about the main point sources of pollution, and so on.

Besides this, the systems of analysis which they aim to devise are stand-alone ones, i.e. they have no need to be handled directly by any person, operating 24 hours a day and being connected to a meter which will collect and process the data in an ongoing manner. This will enable knowing the state of water in real time and this, together with the fact that further measuring devices can be installed, will provide more exhaustive measurements which will, in turn, enable greater control of the state of the water. “It will be like having a patient monitored continuously”, stated Fernando Benito-López, lead researcher of NAPES project at CIC microGUNE.

The NAPES project will seek new solutions for the analysis of water using microfluid devices, i.e. developing systems of analysis able to gather water samples and to independently analyse them using a microfluid system which will, in turn, substitute the complex method currently used, thanks to the use of intelligent materials, i.e. being able to respond in a specific manner to an external stimulus.

Concretely, photo-sensitive or magnetic particle-sensitive polymer materials will be researched, as well as ionogels, with which valves sensitive to temperature and other stimuli will be developed.

“The aim is to investigate next-generation materials in order to develop a prototype equipped with microdevices, providing a sensitivity with a greater capacity for analysing samples, but which is much cheaper to make than current devices”, explained Mr. Benito-López, who added that “having a less expensive state-of-the-art technology will enable having more reliable data about what is happening with our water and, thereby, taking the necessary measures to face possible problems”.

This project, in which CIC microGUNE is taking part, is being led by Dublin City University and has only recently been launched. It is to last for three and a half years and has a budget of 3,300,000 euros.

Involved in the consortium of this project, coordinated by Dublin City University (Ireland), apart from CIC microGUNE, are the following bodies: the Eindhoven University of Technology (the Netherlands), the Institut Curie (France), TE Laboratories (Ireland), Williams Industrial Services (the United Kingdom), the University of Milan (Italy) and Aquila Bioscience Ltd (Ireland).

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