Sense and sensitivity

Sense and sensitivity
Detection system (Photo credit: M. Sarkar)

New miniature sensor will detect and track contaminants in harsh marine environments, and transmit findings in real-time

A multi-disciplinary group of Memorial University scientists, with government and industry backing, have come together to develop a highly sensitive sensor that will detect specific contaminants in cold-water harsh environments like the northwest Atlantic.

Not only that, but the tiny sensor will be able to transmit its findings in real-time, allowing for accurate and immediate monitoring of industrial processes and the environment.

Analytical chemist Dr. Christina Bottaro, physical materials chemist Dr. Erika Merschrod, and chemical engineer Dr. Kelly Hawboldt are the three principal investigators on the project; they lead a team of over 20 graduate students, assistants, collaborators and staff.

The principal investigators say their areas of expertise are perfectly complementary: Merschod’s focus is on developing new materials for surfaces and coatings, Bottaro’s work is in new analysis techniques, and Hawbolt’s expertise relates to industrial systems and process monitoring.

“So, can we take all of this knowledge, and these new methods we’re developing … can we package all of this in a new device that will give a particular response when a contaminant is present?” says Merschrod.

Their partners, including Husky Energy and Petroleum Research Newfoundland and Labrador, have been on board from the beginning. “They identified very quickly that this is something they need,” adds Hawboldt.

The goal is to create a prototype sensor by 2016; the team is on track to meet that target.

The sensor will be small, about one centimetre square, “like a microchip but, instead of doing computer processing, we’re using chemistry to detect things,” says Merschrod.

“It’s a little plate and on the plate are micro channels; on top of those micro channels [Bottaro] works on layering coatings so they’re selective to different components,” continues Hawboldt. “You put it in the water and … even small concentrations are going to get picked up and adhere to those really thin tubes or channels.”

The sensor can be tailored to pick up very specific contaminants of concern, allowing it to be used in a variety of situations. This specificity, as well as the size of the device, will set it apart from sensors currently in use, which tend to be more cumbersome and take very general bulk measurements.

“We need more data, we need better data, and hopefully this system will be able to provide that,” says Merschrod. It will also be able to provide data in real-time which, in the case of identifying contaminants in waste streams or the environment, is crucial.

The sensors will be able to be deployed in a number of ways: they may be attached to a tether, a buoy, or net to serve as a mini environmental monitoring station; affixed to an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle for research; or attached to a platform in line with a stream of waste water, to ensure contaminants are not present before it is discharged into the ocean.

All agree that 2016 will not bring an end to this project. Subsequent work will include commercializing the prototype into something directly useable by industry, and then applying the technology to other sectors or applications.

“Instead of analyzing produced water [which is the first goal], for example, we could monitor the ocean directly,” says Bottaro, noting the sensors could also be used in sewage treatment plants or to monitor drinking water. “The potential is phenomenal … we are laying the groundwork. We have a lot of proof of principle at this point, and we are excited about the opportunities.

“Early detection and environmental protection” are the public’s top concerns about the offshore oil industry,” Bottaro says. “People should know that industry is interested and scientists at Memorial are interested in solving problems before they happen.”

Stephanie Porter
About Stephanie Porter

Stephanie Porter is a freelance writer and editor living in St. John’s. In 2003, she helped launch The Independent, a spirited weekly newspaper distributed across Newfoundland and Labrador, known for its investigative news and features. Stephanie was managing editor of the paper until its untimely demise in 2008. She has also worked as a reporter and writer for Downhome magazine, the Express (also now defunct), The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, picking up Atlantic Journalism Awards for her feature and news writing. Stephanie is delighted to be a regular contributor to Atlantic Business Magazine. Photo Credit: Paul Daly.

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