UK team leads effort to develop drinking water analysis tool

Researchers across 13 countries are taking part in a five-year, EU-funded project to improve the safety of European drinking water.

Led by the University of East Anglia, the €9m Aquavalens project aims to give large water utilities, small private supplies and the food industry the technology required to quickly detect viruses, bacteria and parasites in water before they can make people sick.

‘We’re looking at the use of these technologies at any point in the water or food chain where using those technologies could improve safety,’ project leader Prof Paul Hunter from UEA’s Norwich Medical School told The Engineer.

Funded through the European Union’s Framework Programme 7, the project will be executed in four parts.

‘Cluster One is mostly related to biological aspect: how can you detect the specificity, infectivity and virulence of pathogens in, say, drinking water and food [production] using molecular methods?’ said Prof Marc Desmulliez, head of sensors, signals and systems at Heriot-Watt University, an academic partner on the project.

‘The idea of Cluster Two is to integrate different systems such as the sampling of the water, the filtration of the water, the detection [of pathogens] using this molecular method.’

Prof Hunter explained that small water supplies could include a well that supplies a handful of households and that interest in the food industry stems from water used to irrigate crops, wash foodstuffs, and cook food.

Regardless of the source, testing water for anomalies is time consuming and laborious, said Prof Hunter. Results can take at least a day to be returned so the project will aim to develop technologies that do the job more quickly.

He said, ‘It is plausible that you could have a biosensor that you put in the water and it measures e.coli as it passes by the sensor. Then you could get something a lot quicker and a lot cheaper in the long term as it doesn’t require someone to take the sample.

‘In the bigger settings you could talk about online sensors that continually monitor water leaving a water treatment works.

‘The ultimate goal is to get a result in half-an-hour. That’s one of the things we’re aiming for, especially in the small water systems.’

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) approximately 330,000 cases of water-related disease such as E.coli and the norovirus are reported each year in Europe.

‘We still see waterborne disease in the UK,’ said Prof Hunter. ‘A few years ago there was an outbreak of cryptosporidium because a rabbit got into a chlorine contact tank and was pretty much liquidised. Its contents were distributed throughout the mains and consumed by people who got sick.’

Throughout the project, close cooperation will be maintained with biotechnology companies, water providers and food producers so that new technologies will meet real needs and find strong markets.

‘We’ve over 100 individuals working on this project over the next five years and I think we’ve a very real chance of coming up with in-field, useable technology that will give people a greater understanding of their water,’ said Prof Hunter.

More information on the Aquavalens project can be found here.