Laboratories Canada supports NRC solution to real-time environmental monitoring

- Ottawa, Ontario

With water covering over two thirds of the Earth's surface, and a large portion of freshwater being housed right here in Canada, it comes as no surprise that consistently monitoring water quality is important for the health of our environment. But when taking into consideration the vastness of the Canadian geography and the low population density in some rural areas, this is not always an easy task. Fortunately, Laboratories Canada is bringing together the National Research Council of Canada's (NRC) Energy, Mining and Environment and Nanotechnology research centres, along with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) to try to find a better—and more efficient—solution to water monitoring.

A new way to monitor water

Real-time knowledge of water quality has the potential to be critical in preventing, or at least reducing, the impact of toxic spills, agricultural runoffs and other events that can be harmful to the environment. The earlier we catch these problems, the more prepared we are to better protect our waters.

With traditional water quality monitoring methods, human observation and work is often necessary to collect water samples and then carry out lengthy laboratory assays that often take several days, if not weeks, to complete. This approach is impractical, both time and cost-wise, especially when samples need to be collected in more remote areas of the country.

In order to resolve these limitations, the NRC has developed an Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled biosensor that autonomously provides a continuous monitoring of water quality. This biosensor uses a microbial fuel cell that is capable of detecting the presence of toxic compounds and biodegradable organic materials in the water. Thanks to the IoT integration, the biosensor can independently log data and activate a real-time notification system that can prompt traditional environmental monitoring and sampling assays to be done for deeper analysis, when necessary. In other words, the IoT-enabled biosensor will provide instant access to environmental water characterization across Canada.

Three departments are better than one

The work behind this biosensor was a team effort, both within and outside the NRC. From within, the Energy, Mining and Environment Research Centre was able to contribute the latest innovations in bioelectrochemical systems to develop a real-time biosensor, while the Nanotechnology Research Centre developed hardware and software capable of data collection, signal transmission and IoT integration.

Outside the NRC, this Laboratories Canada project brought in NRCan's CanmetMINING group to demonstrate biosensor applications for monitoring mining water quality. In the next year, the IoT-enabled biosensor will also be tested in the field in collaboration with ECCC for the remote monitoring of water quality and detection of inorganic and organic spills caused by agricultural runoffs and municipal wastewater treatment.

Next steps

The real-time biosensor developed by the NRC has been chosen as a proof of concept for the IoT integration due to the urgent need for remote, synchronous environmental monitoring capabilities. Increasing industrial activities worldwide, like agriculture and mining, can negatively impact receiving water bodies—and the environment in general—through the dispersion of metals, pesticide contamination, nutrient enrichment, sedimentation and habitat degradation. Thankfully, this new technology resolves the need for a high number of measurements and high-frequency manual sampling, instead proving successful for real-time water quality monitoring and biological oxygen demand measurements.

This allows for the continuous monitoring of water quality without the addition of potentially toxic and expensive chemicals, making it useful for a number of applications, from water quality (wastewater treatment plants) to water security (drinking water sources) to environmental monitoring.

A successful IoT integration elevates the capability of the biosensor and its subsequent use for the remote monitoring of water quality. In turn, this progresses the development of the IoT platform, which provides a future basis for integrating with other NRC sensors with similar data transmission requirements, advancing our knowledge and experience with this technology as a whole.

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