A handheld system developed through an India-Canada research network promises to provide on-the-spot testing of drinking water sources in more remote locations, immediately confirming the absence or presence of harmful E. coli bacteria and transmitting the results electronically to all interested parties. This approach represents a significant improvement over standard testing regimes that call for samples from a source to be sent to a laboratory. Depending on how far away that facility is, the travel time could create delays on the order of days, while people consume water that could be contaminated.

A handheld device measures the presence of harmful E coli bacteria in water,  then transmits that finding using a smart phone app. Photo credit: Micro and Nano-scale Transport Laboratory, University of Alberta

“We should be able to detect in real time, right at the source,” says University of Alberta mechanical engineering professor Sushanta Mitra. He has led the team working on the device, which employs a single-use detection system driven by enzyme substrates that turn red in the presence of E. coli. The intensity of the colour can be calibrated to correspond with bacterial levels, so that a simple response of “safe” or “unsafe” can be logged automatically by a sensor. A smart phone app, which was created as part of this project, then distributes this information over a wireless network. 

In this way, an entire community can quickly be notified about the safety of a water supply. Just as importantly, says Mitra, the system’s self-contained chemistry has been kept proprietary to prevent commercial interests from trying to price such equipment beyond the reach of the poorest users. Those same users, Mitra adds, may be the ones most dependent on questionable water supplies and therefore most in need of this testing capability. “We are thinking of this as a technology for the masses,” he says, pointing out its applicability to a village in India or a First Nations community in Canada. “Anyone can do this testing.”

This project was funded by Alberta’s Ministry of Innovation and Advanced Education.  Mitra also leads the Integrated Water Management theme for the India-Canada Centre for Innovative Multidisciplinary Partnerships to Accelerate Community Transformation and Sustainability (IC-IMPACTS), which is part of the Networks of Centres of Excellence of Canada program. This collaboration includes participants from U of A and the universities of British Columbia and Toronto who are working with researchers, industry innovators, community leaders, government agencies and community organizations from across India and Canada to address quality-of-life challenges in both countries.