Portable Fluorimeters: A New Tool for Finding Clean Water

A team of scientists and engineers from Australia, the United Kingdom and South Africa have evaluated whether a new method using fluorescence spectroscopy could be used to assess water quality. They found this new method using portable fluorimeters reliable for real-world application such as in disaster relief situations. The use of this tool could provide communities without ready access to clean water a quick, easy, and inexpensive technique to deem water sources safe or unsafe.

Disease from drinking ‘dirty water’ is a major burden on populations in disaster areas or countries where ready access to safe drinking water is unavailable. Being able to rapidly and easily detect how contaminated a water source may be is essential for such affected communities. However, current water testing techniques are time consuming and require skilled technicians and expensive lab equipment to be performed. Researchers have begun to explore the use of fluorescence as a new rapid and portable tool for measuring water quality. Fluorescence in water is a phenomenon where organic molecules give off light when ultraviolet (UV) light is shined on them. Previous studies have been relatively small and lacked realistic conditions which would ensure whether this new method could be used in areas where it’s most needed.

Clearly, wider use of portable fluorimeters would make it easier and faster for water sources to be deemed safe or unsafe. Realizing this, Andy Baker of the Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre, UNSW Australia, led a team of researchers to evaluate the suitability of this tool by using it in real-world scenarios and assessing how well it measured water quality.

In order to emulate real-world conditions, the researches chose two sites with known microbial water quality concerns in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. They took samples during routine water quality sampling and analyzed them with a portable fluorimeter. Additionally, the samples were unfiltered, to simulate worst-case scenarios where filtering is not possible. The researchers wanted to see whether one could correlate the number of disease causing bacteria in the sample with the intensity of fluorescence. After compiling the sampling data, the researchers found that there was a strong correlation between the number of bacteria and the fluorescence intensity of the sample. The researchers deemed the method effective for measuring water quality in surface and groundwater.

Screening water quality with portable fluorimeters can have a wide impact in communities or scenarios where standard methods are unavailable. Fluorescence screening has one major advantage over standard methods: you don’t need to be a scientist to do it. Portable fluorimeters have very simple training requirements and can generate immediate results, thus allowing people in affected areas themselves to use it rather than rely on outside help. Andy Baker and his team propose the best use of portable fluorimeters is in disaster relief situations, where quickly assessing the water quality of surface and groundwater sources is critical.

For further information Read the Science of the Total Environment original research article which this summary is based on To what extent can portable fluorescence spectroscopy be used in the real-time assessment of microbial water quality? (November 2015).

Visit the profile of the research ambassador, Juan Serrano, who wrote this summary.

STM Digest is a collection of lay summaries published next to original research articles on ScienceDirect, provided free of charge, and accessible to everyone.