From The Editor | July 6, 2015

Instant Water Quality Monitoring: It's About Time


By Kevin Westerling,

These are trying times in the water and wastewater industry, characterized by a general lack of resources — failing infrastructure, inadequate funding, and even a lack of water itself. But it’s also an exciting time, with new technologies guiding the way to a brighter future.

Speaking Of Time …

Real-time contaminant detection has been called the “Holy Grail” for the water industry by Dr. Junhong Chen, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) professor and leading researcher in the field of biosensors. Chen’s vision is that of an “intelligent” water distribution system, where threats can be immediately identified and controlled. We’re getting closer to that day, as three U.S. manufacturers are set to have handheld prototypes ready in 2016.

But what about real-time wastewater monitoring?

Due to harsher water and pollutants, real-time biosensors for wastewater were considered by Chen’s team to be a trickier and farther-off proposition, but European researchers have recently defied this expectation and are putting the Holy Grail within everyone’s grasp.

On-The-Spot Wastewater Monitoring

The European Commission (EC) reports that Professor Ahmed Al-Shamma at Liverpool John Moors University (LJMU) has developed a “multi-sensor fusion monitoring system” — custom electromagnetic wave sensors of different size and type, fused together into a novel prototype system. Borne out of LJMU’s Water-Spotcheck project and funded by the EC’s Marie Curie Actions fellowship program, the system potentially allows utilities to perform à la carte monitoring, customizing their sensor arrays to instantly detect specifically selected contaminants.

These claims were tested against actual wastewater flows during a pilot study at United Utilities in the U.K., where proof-of-concept was verified. According to the utility’s technology development manager, Son Le, the multi-sensor system detected pollutants such as phosphates, nitrates, chlorides, pesticides, and bacteria with “consistency and high repeatability in real time without the need for biological and chemical laboratory testing” — i.e., without the need for a two-week wait.

That means instant control strategies, increased efficiency, and safer water.

Time To Innovate

Dr. Chen at UWM, Professor Al-Shamma at LJMU, and their respective teams are changing the future of water and wastewater treatment, but they are small parts of a larger story. Innovation is an absolute requirement to help overcome our monumental water challenges, but it doesn’t happen without proper funding and support. In a perfect world, the public understands the true value of water, politicians and policy makers devote the necessary resources, and municipalities are emboldened to adopt innovative solutions — like real-time biosensors, or some of the technologies covered in Water Innovations.

We’ll get there someday, because we have no other choice. It’s simply a matter of time.