A technology that could help clean up our drinking water AND save money on our water bills?

Professor Gary Fones has travelled the world to conduct research in Environmental Aquatic Chemistry and now he’s helping tackle the problem of water pollution closer to home.

In our podcast Life Solved, Emma Fields speaks to Professor Fones about the innovative work that has brought him to the University of Portsmouth.

The work we've been doing recently looks at organic pollutants. What are these things that are coming in from sewage treatment works, flowing through the rivers, out into the estuaries, out into the coastal sea? And what's their impact on the environment?

Professor Gary Fones, Professor of Environmental Aquatic Chemistry

Technology for environmental health

Professor Fones explains Chemcatcher technology: A catchy name and a brilliant development in monitoring the emerging contaminants in water systems.

A passive sampler is something that has no moving parts, no batteries, no power supply. You put it in the water or in the sediment and it accumulates the contaminant over time. Then you take it to the lab and you can work out what contaminants were there.

Professor Gary Fones, Professor of Environmental Aquatic Chemistry

Gary’s journey to this point has seen him working in diverse and exciting environments, from studying phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean to sediment studies in the Celtic Sea. The applications of this research are wide too, giving us vital insight into how changes in aquatic environments not only impact wildlife but also human activities such as fishing.

Specific contaminants can cause different problems in our waters. In the podcast, Gary explains how those humble organisms – algae, phytoplankton and the like – can have a massive impact on water environments in response to manmade or environmental change.

If you get harmful algal blooms these can release toxins. And those toxins are the ones that go into the Shellfish and make them unsafe to eat

Professor Gary Fones, Professor of Environmental Aquatic Chemistry

Preventing chemical imbalance with efficient, accurate data

In this case, prevention is better than cure, which is how the Chemcatcher technology solution came about via a process called passive sampling.

Traditionally, water sampling has been based on a system that extracts a water sample at a particular day or time. Without regular manual sampling, this could lead to skewed results based on what’s happening locally – be it, farmers using pesticides, storm runoff or other factors – at a given time.

Over 23 years, Gary and his colleagues have refined a device to analyse the chemical nature of contaminants as they diffuse through a gel and are taken up by different kinds of resin. This lets scientists get a really clear picture of what’s actually in the water over a period.

The whole concept of passive samplers is one, it pre concentrates. So it makes it easier for doing the analytical work because you've built that contaminant up over time. So it's easier to detect. The other one is you get this thing called a time weighted average. So essentially it accumulates for two weeks and it will detect an average presence of that contaminant over the two weeks.

Professor Gary Fones, Professor of Environmental Aquatic Chemistry

More affordable monitoring

There's also a secondary benefit to using these samplers over longer periods of time in that water companies can cut the cost of sending people out for regular manual samples, and who knows, maybe even pass the saving on to the consumer!

Professor Fones is now looking at how Chemcatcher technology can be rolled out across the world.

Listen to the Life Solved podcast

Life Solved shares stories of research taking place in Portsmouth that looks set to change our world. You can listen to Professor Fones talk about his work from Tuesday 2nd of February. Search for 'Life Solved' on any app or online to listen.

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