Portable device detects lead in grey water at source
Students at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) have developed a portable device that can detect heavy metal levels in water at source.
Part of the UAEU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE) program, the four students and their supervising professors spent six weeks developing the device which allows concentrations of lead in water to be accurately measured at the source, rather than samples having to be transported to a lab.
“It is very important to have methods to measure heavy metals at low concentrations because we do have heavy metals at low concentrations in the water – not necessarily the drinking water but in the grey water,” said Thies Thiemann, Professor of Chemistry at UAEU. “Grey water is usually put back onto the fields so some of the grey water ends up in agricultural produce. From that point of view it is important to monitor heavy metals in that type of water. What ideally you want to have is a small device that you take along with you to sample the water directly and measure it. And this was one of the considerations when the team worked on the device.”
Currently, heavy metals in water are measured using instruments such as inductively coupled plasma (ICP). However, they are costly, high maintenance and require scientists and researchers to bring their water samples to the lab for analysing.
Prof Thiemann said cost and the need to transport the sample was the other determining factor for the team when developing the device. “Nowadays it is very important to analyse things cheaply. It is a question of cost very often, especially for developing countries where price is definitely a concern. So ideally you want to have a device that you can take out into the countryside, that is cheap to run and low maintenance.”
Moreover, the device, which was a joint effort between Prof Thiemann, Dr Saber Abdel Baki and undergraduate students Shefaa Abou Namous, Amna Al Neyadi, Zeinab Saeed and Salma Abubaker, was designed with the international market in mind.
“We’re not necessarily developing this for the UAE,” said Prof Thiemann. “We’re thinking also of using that sort of device for a region that is less developed.”
Dr Abdel Baki said: “The project included the preparation of a new plastic electrode to measure and estimate concentrations of lead ions at ppb level in two ways: the traditional way using an internal aqueous lead solution as ion-to-electron transducer, and a recently developed way using a solid contact (polyaniline) as ion-to-electron transducer to avoid the disadvantages of the more conventional electrode, as a preliminary stage to prepare a modern system of simultaneous estimation of lead.”
If the device makes its way to the market, which Prof Thiemann said is possible, it could transform the agricultural industry at home and abroad.
“Most water supply companies in the UAE have labs and they are working very well in terms of analysing the drinking water, so we don’t have to worry about our drinking water here. But the point is that here, what we do sometimes have is grey water and the grey water is often put onto the fields or on the road-divides where you have plants growing. You have to be sure that you do not put a lot of heavy metals into the ground again.”
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