Published online: May 21, 2009
Viewed 948 time(s)
Web Exclusive

A low-cost, portable system to test water quality and help authorities deal with pollution or pesticide contamination has been developed in Australia.

Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne collaborated with the Victorian Department of Primary Industries to develop the proof-of-concept sensor.

The initial target of the system is a fungicide used in areas of intensive horticultural production close to catchments.

The RMIT prototype sensor uses selectively adsorbing polymers designed to quantitatively detect specific water-borne contaminants.

The prototype has been demonstrated to representatives from Victorian water suppliers, catchment management authorities and regulatory agencies.

Project leader David Mainwaring says the device provides a rapid, inexpensive method of measuring chemical residues on-site.

"It will aid water managers in the minimisation of off-target impacts of spills, industrial pollution and agricultural application of pesticides to water catchment quality," he says.

Existing analytical testing methods are time-consuming and expensive.

Department of Primary Industries researcher Colin Cook says the sensor can evaluate water supplies very quickly to target specific contaminants.

"Taking precautions to protect water supplies following a pesticide spill can be very expensive, without even considering the test costs," Cook says.

"Speedy results can guide the emergency response efficiently for industry as well as the government agencies."

As a first indication, the instrumentation will cost less than A$2,500. By using reusable sensing chips, costs per test appear less than a dollar.

The sensor uses advanced functional polymer technology that can be tailored to detect specific water contaminants including a wide range of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.

On-site testing could potentially be conducted in ground water, run-off waters, rivers, creeks, irrigation channels and tanks.

Mainwaring says functional polymer technology also had wider applications in the containment of contamination for water catchments since the polymers can readily absorb more than 10% of their weight for a variety of agricultural chemicals.

"Further applications of such functional polymers could include the accurate quantitative detection of anti-bodies, heavy metals, E coli and antibiotics," he says.