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New nitrate detection tech could save waterways

New nitrate detection tech could save waterways

Emerging technology being developed at the University of Canterbury (UC) could revolutionise nitrate monitoring in waterways.

The novel electrochemical sensing system offers the advantages of selectivity and high sensitivity, and when fully developed will also have long life and durability. Additionally, once the system is fully developed, it will be able to send information wirelessly, doing away with manual field sampling and lengthy and expensive laboratory testing.

The electrode is geared to work in waterways such as streams, groundwater, aquifers and estuaries. So, for example, nitrate levels could be measured and electronically sent to regional councils providing real-time information on waterways across catchment areas.

Or a manager at a mussel farm could be alerted when nitrate concentrations are too high, so workers could adjust or ameliorate the environment before harm is done to the product.

Associate Professor Vladimir Golovko and Associate Professor Aaron Marshall have collaborated on projects at UC for about eight years. Chemist Assoc Prof Golovko provides expertise in catalytic metal particles (nanomaterials which can be synthesised using chemical techniques) while engineer Assoc Prof Marshall works on the electrochemistry side.

The research team identified nitrates as a significant issue for New Zealand, looked at existing technology, and identified a gap in the market for a low-cost and reliable sensor.

This research has earned them one of five prizes in UC’s annual Tech Jumpstart competition, which awards $20,000 over six months to take innovative research towards commercial reality.

Assoc Prof Marshall says many countries have similar problems with run-off from farms or over-fertilisation.

“This has huge potential for New Zealand and worldwide,” he says.

“The prize allows us access to market analysis and look at where we might get further funding. These things are critical in moving the project from its early stage to the next level where we can operate outside lab conditions and take environmental samples in the field.”

“Once we’re there, we would move on to making the hardware prototypes and an app that will deliver the readings,” Assoc Prof Marshall says.

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