Testing the water

Researchers in Australia have developed a low-cost, portable way to test water quality and help authorities deal with pollution or pesticide contamination.

The researchers, at RMIT University, collaborated with the Victorian Department of Primary Industries (DPI) at Knoxfield and Werribee to develop a proof-of-concept, portable sensor for testing on-site water quality.

The RMIT prototype sensor uses selectively adsorbing polymers that can be tailored to detect specific water contaminants including a wide range of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.

It was demonstrated to representatives from Victorian water suppliers, catchment management authorities and regulatory agencies at a workshop late last year.

Prof David Mainwaring, who led the research, said the device provided a rapid, inexpensive method of measuring chemical residues on-site.

Existing analytical testing methods are currently time consuming and expensive. According to Colin Cook of the DPI’s Future Farming Systems research team, 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,’ said Cook.

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

Once commercialised, the instrumentation will cost less than $2,500 (£1,650). By employing reusable sensing chips, costs per test appear less than a dollar.

Prof Mainwaring said functional polymer technology also had wider applications in the containment of contamination for water catchments since the polymers could readily absorb more than 10 per cent of their weight for a variety of agricultural chemicals.

‘Further applications of such functional polymers could include the accurate quantitative detection of antibodies, heavy metals, E coli and antibiotics,’ he added.

The project was funded by an innovation grant from Land and Water Australia.