A Cost-Effective Clean Water Solution from St Andrews

Jamie Locke-Jones
Monday 27 February 2023

Water quality problems currently affect nearly a billion people, and by 2050, water shortages are expected to affect over 50% of the global population. The integrity of both water quality and delivery networks are crucial in addressing these issues.

A drinking fountain in Pitlochry Rail Station, Perthshire

Despite several decades of academic interest, joined more recently by stronger policy engagement, data on emerging environmental contaminants of concern is still hard to come by. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the research has focused on urbanised areas or, due to logistical constraints, on locations easily accessible by sampling staff. As a result, large parts of Scotland remain under-surveyed – and this situation is presumably replicated elsewhere. More remote areas are often assumed to be low risk, but it is vital that this assumption is backed up by good quality evidence.

Laboratory analysis of water samples is expensive and time-consuming. Current methods of pesticide detection are particularly bulky, costly, and slow. Sensor technologies can be incorporated into hand-held devices or analysed remotely through telemetry; the latter can be highly valuable for remote aquatic monitoring, especially for screening purposes.

The Lightwater Sensors detector, created by Dr Ross Gillanders, is a low-cost real-time diagnostic system for water samples.

From Landmines to Lightwater

Research began with Gillanders’ work developing an optical sensor platform for detecting landmines and other explosive remnants of war as part of a European FP7 project called TIRAMISU in the Organic Semiconductor Group at the School of Physics & Astronomy led by Prof Graham Turnbull. Humanitarian de-mining releases land back to locals for farming, trade and communication, and the potential impact for public health and the economy is therefore potentially huge. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are also a major global threat both in conflict zones and in countries at peace. IEDs are becoming more sophisticated in design and deployment, and will continue to be used to inflict civilian casualties in the foreseeable future. New sensing technologies are required to detect and locate these devices, and to help understand the timeline of a terrorist plot.

A soldier checks two VS-1.6 anti-tank mines

A portable, low-cost, modular optical sensor system potentially suitable for use in the field for landmine detection has been developed, with the technology successfully demonstrated in the laboratory detecting buried explosives. This groundwork was completed in 2016 and 2017 and received a widely positive response. An exciting opportunity now presents itself to adapt the group’s work for IED detection by assessing and developing the means to deploy optical sensor technology in Counter-IED detection. While developing his work on Counter-IED detection, Gillanders exploited the wide-ranging uses of the underpinning technology to address water quality, increasingly one of the world’s most pressing issues.

Environmental impact is multi-faceted, encompassing many diverse factors stakeholders. Enabling users to detect water pollution in real time, Gillanders’ technology can benefit many of them, providing a positive follow-on impact on public health, food & drink, flora and fauna. 

Image from Josh Estey

Lightwater is also of significant value in “polluter pays” scenarios. For instance, in May 2021, Scottish Water paid a £6,700 fine for accidental pollution of the River Eden, while chemical companies Chemours and DuPont collectively paid a $671 million settlement for water pollution in 2017 in West Virginia. In cases such as these Lightwater Sensors can alert stakeholders instantly, helping to prevent the further spread of contamination. In this capacity Lightwater Sensors offers a definite contribution to UN’s Sustainable Goals Goal 6, to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. Cleaner water and improved pollution detection both influence food production quality control, giving Gillanders’ technology an indirect positive impact to the UN’s Goals for zero hunger and the promotion of well-being across all ages. The company established to provide Lightwater Sensors will provide national opportunities in green tech, health & wellbeing, and data-driven business. 

No country is isolated from demands for reliable clean water, and so the benefits in catching water pollution early are universal. As global water quality comes under increasing pressure through the twin challenges of climate change and population growth, maintaining clean water is one of the most crucial necessities for human health. The intention is for Lightwater Sensors to scale internationally and become a “household name” for water quality instrumentation. In the future, Lightwater could profoundly impact a wide array of the constituent parts of the water quality market, which include groundwater, drinking water, wastewater, aquaculture, coastal, and environmental laboratories for regulatory bodies and academia. 

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