Can we ensure water quality?
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“The ‘Holy Grail’ in my field is the development of completely autonomous, low-cost, chemical sensors that could be distributed into the environment,” says Ravi Selvaganapathy, a mechanical engineer who researchers biomicrofluidics. “Distributed sensing could connect us with ecosystems, ensure their health is maintained, and create significant economic benefit in areas as diverse as agriculture and natural disaster recovery.”

Selvaganapathy is working to develop sensors that could be used to monitor lakes, rivers, and streams as well as municipal water supply networks. Using an interface similar to Google’s traffic feed, he envisions a sensor network that provides real-time mapping of toxic elements, chemicals and pathogens in the environment.

“This network will enable citizens, municipalities and government to measure changes in the environment, especially in water,” he says. “They can respond to threats before any significant long-term damage is done.”

Water resources are increasingly stressed due to population growth and densification, as well as intensive farming practices and other industrial activity. Rapid, accurate, inexpensive measuring of water quality is increasingly important to ensure that it is safe for drinking, recreation, and releasing into the environment.

“By making the cost of sensing toxic elements and pathogens cheaper, our research enables more affordable and effective assurance of water quality and protection of public health and the environment.”

While Selvaganapathy has clearly stated goals regarding the applied benefits of his research, he is careful to maintain the intellectual openness that is fundamental to curiosity-driven research. This kind of openness allows him to makes the most of serendipitous discoveries.

“In the process of developing these sensors, we occasionally accidentally come across unexpected and novel phenomena which lead us in new directions and uncharted areas,” he says. “For instance, our recent development of phosphate sensors came from our explorations into new materials for other types of sensors for dry conditions.”

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