UVic-led team inventing cellphone-based arsenic test for drinking water

UVic-led team inventing cellphone-based arsenic test for drinking water

Under the guidance of a University of Victoria professor, a U.S. student is inventing a process to test drinking water for arsenic that can be analyzed by a regular cellphone.

Andrea Green, 29, is an undergrad student at the Georgie Institute of Technology in Atlanta who has been working at home remotely under the direction of civil engineering professor Heather Buckley at UVic.

Working on the project as part of an internship program called Mitacs Global Link, Green has been helping a UVic lab create a “rapid, low-cost and reliable test” to detect arsenic in drinking water from the comfort of her own home.

“Arsenic is a long-term water problem that requires regular testing to keep people safe,” said Buckley in a news release.

She said the lab is creating a solution that involves adding chemicals to water that would change its colour in the presence of arsenic.

Once placed in vials that would clip to a cellphone camera lens, the phone software would be able to distinguish colours to detect whether arsenic is present.

“The camera should be able to know, for example, that if the sample turns blue, arsenic is present, and if it stays yellow, the water is safe to drink,” she said.

The solution could be an important discovery for places where arsenic groundwater contamination is a problem, such as northern and Indigenous communities in Canada, rural parts of the western U.S., Mexico, Chile, Argentina and India.

“In Bangladesh alone, it is estimated that exposure to arsenic in drinking water accounts for 20 percent of deaths,” says Mitacs.

Existing test kits cost around $20 USD, but the research team is hoping to develop something that costs pennies per test kit.

Usually, Green’s internship would bring her to UVic but because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, she is working remotely in Georgia.

She said she takes part in video calls with her Canadian mentors and connects with other interns from around the world.

“Being in this program has allowed me to see the slight cultural differences between all of us and appreciate those differences,” said Green, who has never travelled outside of the U.S. but, after participating in the Mitacs Globalink program, now hopes to obtain her PhD at a Canadian university.

“What I’ve learned in these few short weeks has been so valuable, I want to apply it as I move forward with my research and maybe even teach people here in my country the things I’ve learned.”

Buckley, her mentor, said ideally Green would be in the lab helping build sensors for the test kits, but even from the U.S. her work is proving invaluable.

“Andrea’s review is shaping the big picture of where our arsenic test will go as she continues to feed us new ideas and new inspiration,” Buckley said.


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