Could New Device Prevent Heavy Metal Contamination Of Food In Developing Countries?

A portable device to detect heavy metal levels in water is being developed by four students at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU).

Part of the UAEU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE) program, four female students and their supervising professors spent six weeks developing the device which allows you to accurately measure concentrations of lead in water at the source, rather than transport the sample 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,” explains 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 analyzing.

Prof. Thiemann says 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 analyze things cheaply. It is a question of cost very often, especially for developing countries where price is definitely of 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,” explains Prof. Thiemann. “We’re thinking also of using that sort of device for a region that is less developed.”

Going into the technical details, Dr. Abdel Baki adds: “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 says is wholly 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 analyzing 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. So you have to be sure that you do not put a lot of heavy metals into the ground again.”

The companies who would benefit the most from using the device include agriculture associations, says the professor. “Ultimately associations provide help to the farmers and this sort of device would be quite helpful. Also, there are a lot of companies that make ion-selective electrodes so any of these companies would be perhaps be interested in putting this device into their portfolio.”

Looking ahead, Prof. Thiemann and Dr. Abdel Baki are hoping to patent the device. “The UAEU has a dedicated office that manages intellectual property and patents. Ultimately, UAEU is actively pursuing patents at the moment and quite successfully so. But for that there will need to be some more research here; the students will continue to do research over the semester and most likely we will refine certain things and afterwards it will then be looked at by the IP Office.”    


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Dec 13, 2017