Researchers at the Unversity of Bath have developed a low cost, portable water sensor for detecting heavy metals that can be easily be used by non-experts.The team from the University’s Water Innovation & Research Centre and Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) worked with researchers from Universidad de los Andes’ Faculties of Economics and Engineering and have made a video about their work (below).They worked together on a device that provides a simple and real-time way of testing water systems and simultaneously uploads the data to a web-based platform via a mobile app. This shows the sampling location on a map and the acquired data is public and can be accessed anytime from anywhere in the world.

The sensor 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.

Colombia 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 ‘Water Monitoring in Colombian Vulnerable Communities in a Post-Conflict Scenario’ project is backed by the Newton Fund Institutional Links to map 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. Rural indigenous communities are particularly suffering from mercury pollution.

Large numbers of rural municipalities and indigenous territories in Colombia are currently affected by this contamination, with high rates of mercury-related diseases resulting in foetus malformations and brain disorders, rates which are increasing every year.

The multisensing 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.

“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,” said Dr Mirella Di Lorenzo, project leader and Senior Lecturer in the University of Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering (shown above).

Mapping out areas of water affected by mercury as well as providing water users with key water variable readings will also help prevent the spread of water-borne diseases.

“Humans have contaminated many regions in the world and it is a particular shame we have contaminated the Amazon,” said Dr Alba Graciela Avila Bernal, Associate Professor at the Universidad de los Andes, and co-investigator in the project. “By combining our expertise in participatory design and humanitarian engineering with the sensing expertise at the University of Bath, we have provided this community with a reliable and affordable way of testing the water they so heavily depend upon.

The researchers are now aiming to further improve the device by making it more intuitive and smaller; thereby making it easier for a technology that can be used by rural communities.

‘Water Sweet Water‘ is a short feature film documenting the time the researchers spent with the community of Santa Sofia. 

Nick Flaherty

Shona Wright

Shona covers all things editorial at TechSPARK. She publishes news articles, interviews and features about our fantastic tech and digital ecosystem, working with startups and scaleups to spread the word about the cool things they're up to.

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