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Updated 9/25/13

Quick-time E.coli Sensor could lead to real-time water quality maps


In late September, a research team from the University of Alberta's Faculty of Engineering announced that they had developed a device that detects E. coli bacteria in water in no time at all.

In fact, the sensor developed by Profressor Sushanta Mitra's team is capable of detecting the potentially deadly bacteria in minutes vastly improving on existing technology, which takes 24 to 48 hours.

The team is now working to tie the new test to cellphone technology to alert health workers and members of the public that a water source is contaminated. The device was tested on wells in remote communities in India (Khadavli, Mumbai) this summer. Mitra and colleagues worked with Tata Consultancy Services and King Edward Medical College to develop software support for the sensor.

The team recently returned from India where it conducted further tests and refined the device for use in the developing world. We spoke with Mitra upon his return.

Water Today - What exactly is the sensor you developed?

Mitra - The sensor is a filter Coated with a chemical solution that traps E. coli and changes colour in the presence of the deadly bacteria.

Water Today - Does it detect other contaminants as well as E.coli?

Mitra - No, it was developed specifically to detect E.coli in response to the demand from communities. 80% of public health problems stem from illnesses caused by E.coli bacteria. According to the World Health Organization, over two million people die by drinking contaminated water each year. This simple device can vastly reduce the cost of public health. We are however looking into modifying the sensor to detect other chemicals in water such as arsenic and fluoride.

Water Today - Is it easy for anyone to use? How was it received by communities in India?

Mitra - It is specifically designed to be easy to use and inexpensive. In our fist field tests in India, workers were sent house to house to determine ehatlh conditions and explain the technology. On this second field trip, wwe tested the kits themselves. Both field tests were very successful. Mobile technology in India is one of the few networks that is quite reliable, so this approach is well suited the country's needs. The APP we are developing right now is Android-based but we working on an Apple version.

Water Today - How much does it cost?

Mitra - The cost for 10,000 units is 30 to 40 cents.

Water Today - The device was created to answer the needs of developing countries, could it be expanded for use in municipalities in Canada.

Mitra - Yes. Through our Program Expand North, We are working on expanding its use in Canada. Our ultimate goal is to develop a water quality map which would pinpoint water quality issues across the country based on real-time data.

Water Today - Might this even be a handy device for campers?

Mitra - Actually that is a good idea. It could certainly work for that purpose.

Water Today - In areas where there is no cellphone access, would boiling the water that is determined to contain E.coli be sufficient?

Mitra - Yes or adding chlorine tablets. Boiling in many areas is too energy intensive to be a practical solution.



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