Life solved EP21

Professor Gary Fones and the game changer for water quality

20 min listen

External Audio


In the final episode of Life Solved Series 2, we hear about the Portsmouth technology that's changing the game for water quality, which may even help reduce our water bills!

Professor Gary Fones has spent a career analysing freshwater and seawater environments to find out how pollutants end up in waterways and what impact this has on water quality and environments. From estuaries to rivers and lakes, he's sifted through the silt to do the science.

In this episode, Professor Fones tells Emma Fields how he's travelled the world for work and developed amazing technology to help water companies stay one step ahead of keeping our supplies clean and clear through sampling.

You can listen to Life Solved on all major podcast players, whether via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or other apps. Just search for 'Life Solved' and press the subscribe button.

Where we're looking at these emerging contaminants. I still don't know what their fate is. So where does it end up if it's in the sediments? What are the processes that are happening there? Is it being broken down or is it just building up?

Professor Gary Fones, Professor of Environmental Aquatic Chemistry

Episode transcript:

John Worsey: You're listening to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. This is the place where you can hear about big ideas, big research and big experiments that are shaping the future of our world.

John Worsey: Today, we're finding out how chemistry and technology have joined forces to help clean up our waters here in the UK and even further afield.

Gary Fones: We use our technology to map out what's going on in their catchment, how it -- where is it coming from? How is it flowing through their rivers? The big thing is, is providing clean drinking water.

John Worsey: We're hearing how experiments like this are opening up brand new questions to scientists who have to work together to combine their expertise.

Gary Fones: Where we're looking at these emerging contaminants, you still don't know what their fate is. So where does it end up if it's in the sediments? What are the processes that's happening there? Is it being broken down, is it building up, is it being released back?

John Worsey: And we'll find out about the Portsmouth technology that looks set to change the game, gathering information on water quality and who knows, maybe even reduce our water bills.

John Worsey: Emma Fields met Professor Gary Fones.

John Worsey: Gary Fones is Professor of Environmental Aquatic Chemistry. In his career, Gary's done incredible research all over the world. But as far as his wife is concerned...

Gary Fones: So my wife thinks from previous work that I just play with mud and sand.

John Worsey: In his my main area of research Gary works with aquatic environments, both freshwater and seawater.

Gary Fones: Otherways that I describe it, the work we do now is just thinking about pollutants in river water and coastal waters. So all of the things, you know, where does our water come from or how are you polluting it? So every time you do something, it's just going down the drain. It's ending up in the waterways.

Gary Fones: But the overall impact of extra things going into the environment, so nutrients coming in, trace metals, the work we've been doing recently, lots of organic pollutants. So all these things that are coming in from rivers, sewage treatment works, flowing through the rivers, out into the estuaries, out into the coastal sea. What's their impact?

John Worsey: Portsmouth is full of brilliant minds who are doing really excellent research, and Gary is one of them. His work has taken him to study phytoplankton under the watchful gaze of king penguins in the Southern Ocean to sediment studies on a shelf in the Celtic Sea, and how that relates to fisheries. He's worked around the world and he loves the discovery aspect of this new science. But also the chance to innovate and make a real impact on cleaning up our waters in relationship to wider environments. He's even explored their relationship with carbon, which has been impactful in our understanding of climate science.

Gary Fones: The first one is the -- is this whole discovery science and trying to understand things that we don't know. So how do various processes work? So some of the sediment work I did with the passive samplers was looking at these small-scale processes, which no one -- no one knew how they worked, no one knew that they worked at this sub-micron scale and there was all these small micro-niches of metal release and recycling. And I suppose and the other one is -- is this -- is this innovation side. Is the you know, how can we use passive sampling to help the water industry or environmental regulators? Because it's kind of been proven that taking spot samples of water isn't really the best way to do environmental monitoring programmes. So if we can -- if we can use passive samplers to further our understanding of what's happening in the aquatic environment from river iron inputs and then link that into sewage treatment works, etc. Can we, you know, can we help ultimately clean up the UK rivers and coastal waters? Maybe we don't have to reach good ecological status now we've post-Brexit, but saying we do take all of that on board. How do we reach good ecological status?

John Worsey: You'll hear more about passive sampling later. Gary's pretty humble, but this is an area of cutting edge tech that he's developed and it has the potential to change the way we manage water quality the world over. If all this chemistry seems a little far from home. Let's look at one example from Gary's work on how carbon gets locked away in our oceans.

Gary Fones: There's this thing called the biological pump. So it's essentially, photosynthesis, algae use up or utilise all the carbon dioxide, photosynthesise, lock that carbon dioxide away into their algal parts, they then die, sink down through the water column, taking that inorganic carbon that they convert to organic carbon that then sinks down into the deep sea, potentially is either recycled back up into the surface or can be taken down into the deep sea and sequestered away. So locked away.

Narrator: So algae are pretty essential for taking carbon out of our atmosphere.

Gary Fones: So once it gets below a certain depth, it's not going to be recycled back up into the surface ocean. So where you get lots of mixing due to the fact that it's very -- it was always windy at sea and it stirs all the surface up and it just recycles it. Once it can get past, say, hundreds of metres and thousands of metres then it all sinks down to the bottom and then it will just be moved around with bottom circulation and not just mix straight back up. So that's very -- that's very deep sea, global, deep sea oceanography.

John Worsey: In the past, Gary's looked at geoengineering where increased iron in the water helps these algae or phytoplankton bloom to see if it increases the amount of carbon they take out of the atmosphere. There's since been a move away from geoengineering in science.

Gary Fones: The iron's good because it makes the phytoplankton grow. What isn't good is you could then get ecosystem shift. So you might get different types of phytoplankton, zooplankton and you change the whole structure. So what used to live there might -- might change.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

John Worsey: Phytoplankton may play a key role in the whole structure of an aquatic ecosystem, but there's more than one type of algae and some have more useful functions than others.

John Worsey: Algal blooms are the result of increased nitrogen and phosphorus or N&P in water systems, and this might come from manmade sources like dishwasher tablets or sewage treatment works, and all of it has an impact on our interconnected water systems.

Gary Fones: So if you get big, big algal blooms. There's different types but you can have ones which are called harmful algal blooms, which can release toxins. And those toxins are the ones that go into the shell -- shellfish. So you might see areas where they'll go, we've had this big algal bloom, please don't eat any shellfish. The other one is if you just get eutrophication and lots of phytoplankton, then that sinks down onto the sea bed if it's -- if it's shallow and that uses up all the oxygen. So there's no oxygen in the bottom waters. There's no oxygen in the surface sediments.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Gary Fones: So that's the other impact that has. We were looking at what happens when all the nutrients come down the rivers and into the harbour. So we were -- it was quite local, it was at Christchurch Harbour. And so we were looking at the Stour and the Avon. So we were -- we were doing high resolution monitoring. So we were taking samples every so many hours or so, using different automated techniques and then trying to work out what the fluxes were. So that was like how much N&P was coming into the Christchurch Harbour. So that was one -- one bit of the work package. And then the other one I was doing, which is sediment biogeochemistry. So this is what happens in the surface sediments. So when all this new nutrients come in or we've got all the phytoplankton and it's all rains down onto the...

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Gary Fones: ...Onto the seabeds.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Gary Fones: What happens then? So does it get taken up by the sediment? Is it cause different processes, lots of different chemistry going on, oxygen's used up very quickly. So all the -- all the chemistry and the surface sediments changes. So it's a completely different environment.

John Worsey: Nowadays, Gary works mostly with water companies, the companies that either provide clean water or take dirty water away or do both.

Gary Fones: There's initiatives with the water companies, is you've got -- you've got two -- two ways to try and protect, protect either the water supply or -- or the waterways. One is this thing called end of pipe solution. So that's basically lots of money and lots of technology trying to clean everything up at the sewage treatment works or the water supply works. The other -- the other way that people look at it, and that's where our work comes in, is this thing called protect the source. So if you know what's coming in...

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Gary Fones: You can then try and stop what's coming in. We don't dig it out, the water companies do that.

John Worsey: Remember that 'passive sampler' thing that Gary mentioned earlier? He's developed passive sampler technology over the last 23 years. In fact, it's this that drew him to Portsmouth in the first place. These devices use chemistry to analyse the contaminants as they diffuse through a hydrogel, and are taken up by different kinds of resin. This allows for really detailed analysis of what's in the water.

Gary Fones: So a passive sampler is something that has no moving parts, no batteries, no power supply. It's something that you -- a device that you put in the water or in the sediment and it accumulates the contaminant over time. You can then do the analysis. So you take it back out of the water, take it to the lab, extract the contaminants back off the -- the thing that was sequestering – so building up, pre concentrating everything – and then you can -- you can work out what contaminants were there. And then you can, for some, you can then work out what the concentration was as well. So we've -- I've worked on numerous different passive samplers. So for metals, nutrients, radionuclides, we did some whole load of uranium work with atomic weapons establishment.

Emma Fields: OK.

Gary Fones: We've done ones for tributyltin. You know, the stuff that you paint -- well, used to paint on the bottom of boats...

Emma Fields: Ok, like anti-foul.

Gary Fones: ...To stop anti-fouling.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

John Worsey: Gary came to Portsmouth because of the work done to develop passive sampling, and because of the strong marine science background. It brought everything together for him. And soon he joined forces with Graham Mills and Richard Greenwood to develop the Chemcatcher! He told us about his role.

Gary Fones: So since I started and then when Richard retired, mine has really been pushing the innovation sides of Chemcatcher, of trying to work with -- work with the water companies and how we could use it as a monitoring tool for them. So this is all -- this is essentially all our freshwater work now. But it -- but it's still freshwater into estuaries. And so what happens with the -- with the Chemcatcher is again, that sequesters pre concentrates the contaminants over time. And so we can try and help the water company see where all these contaminants are. So if you imagine a river with lots of tributaries and bits coming in everywhere, that all come down to a central location where the water's abstracted, where they take it off clean drinking water.

Emma Fields: Yep.

Gary Fones: If they detect something there that breaches water framework directives...

Emma Fields: Where's it come from?

Gary Fones: Where is it coming from?

Gary Fones: And what's more, the Chemcatcher means that sampling can be done cheaply and efficiently, which is great for our water bills.

Gary Fones: So you can go out and spend lots of money sending somebody out to collect spot samples everywhere, so it's like a bottle of water. But we refer to these -- and we did it in the Christchurch Harbour as well. We refer to that as you don't know where it's coming from, you don't know what the timing is. So if you've got these things like stochastic inputs, so if you've got a big storm, it rains, it washes everything in.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Gary Fones: That then moves down as in detected down at the supply works.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Gary Fones: But it might have been the day after the person went out with a bottle of water.

Emma Fields: OK, yeah.

Gary Fones: So ahh! The idea with that -- the whole concept of passive samplers is, there's a couple of main key things behind passive samplers, 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 – there's more of it – so it's easier to detect.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Gary Fones: The other one is you get for the Chemcatcher, for the one we use, it -- you get this thing called a time weighted average. So essentially, it accumulates for two weeks, we put them in for two weeks. And so if you get a big spike during that two weeks, it doesn't detect the spike, but it will detect an average presence of that contaminant over the two weeks.

John Worsey: So if there's a spike above the average threshold, this is a good clue to working out how activity around the water might have changed. This could be a result of farm spreading pesticides at certain times of the year or storms creating sewer overflows. Water companies have a big stake in making sure pesticides and other chemicals don't make it into drinking water. Just a tiny concentration can lead to huge fines, which is reassuring for all of us drinking it. Chemcatcher technology has the potential to make a massive difference to how water quality's managed around the world, providing detailed information to help us look at risk, inform how water quality is managed and how poor water quality is addressed. And the Chemcatcher approach isn't just helping us manage water quality at home. Gary joined Graham's project looking at HIV drugs in South Africa. He's currently exploring, using this to detect pollution in India too.

Gary Fones: From the townships, there's large use of ARVs.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Gary Fones: So we were just trying to see whether Chemcatcher would be a useful tool for the water companies there and the environment agencies there to see if they could track if it was there. Could you track it? Could you see where it was coming from?

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Gary Fones: What -- what's the concentration? The new work in India is trying to utilise passive samplers there to help them see where all their pollution sources are coming from. So I mean.

Emma Fields: Yeah, so it's...

Gary Fones: They've got a huge monitoring programme, but obviously, they miss everything because they say they're sampling it.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Gary Fones: They got 1,400 and something official sides. But, you know, India's a big country.

Emma Fields: Yeah. Yeah.

Gary Fones: And they're only going to be able to sample there once every month or something. So they're going to miss all these different inputs.

John Worsey: But even where practical work is taking place, new questions and ideas are arising along the way, which could inform the next phase of research and development.

Gary Fones: Where we're looking at these emerging contaminants, we still don't know what their fate is. So where does it end up if it's in the sediments? What are the processes that's happening there? Is it being broken down is it -- just building up, is it being released back? We're still doing our process-driven discovery, blue-skies science, as well as the moving into innovation and impact for water quality monitoring.

Gary Fones: Chemistry, physics, tech, biology. Gary believes departments need to collaborate with businesses and other research organisations and universities to make this happen. This was the case on the Celtic Sea Shelf project he mentioned earlier.

Gary Fones: So that shelf sea one was very in -- it was multi institutional and they call it multidisciplinary, but it was very -- it was very interdisciplinary because we were working on that specific problem of what's happening in the shelf sea and it was very biogeochemistry. But there was myself who was chemistry, working with people who did the physics, working with people who did technology, working with people who did the, still science, but people who did the microbiology. So it's bringing all these different disciplines together to try and answer a particular question. Which just myself, as you know, as an aquatic chemist couldn't answer on my own unless I had somebody that had designed some technology piece of kit that we put on the seabed to do our experiments, which we then use someone else to determine the biological bits to go with our chemistry. And so I suppose that's for me, I've always done multidisciplinary work. So it's trying to link it together, so it's interdisciplinary work.

Emma Fields: Yep.

Gary Fones: To bring that together.

Gary Fones: If there's one thing we've learnt in Life Solved so far, it's that water is political. It underscores every aspect of life on Earth and for that reason, it's a great theme to connect the disciplines. You might remember our episode with Steve Fletcher. He talked about bringing together cross-department decision making over ocean policy. Gary's next focus is on microplastics in marine environments. But his work in water crosses many different areas of research from land and human uses to citizenship, sociology, economics and health. He sees it as his primary role to give decision-makers the evidence they need to change policy and make a difference in everyone's lives.

Gary Fones: I mean, people always write stuff in grant proposals and things about how we're going to change policy. It's like, you're not going to change policy. You need to produce data and evidence to give to people who can then have an impact on the people who then change policy. So it's a -- there's a definite chain of command. Ours is to produce, I think ours is to produce the evidence and the data that we can then say how -- how can this be used?

Emma Fields: And to make -- to -- so people can make an informed decision.

Gary Fones: Yeah.

Emma Fields: You would hope!

John Worsey: Thanks for listening to this episode of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. You can find out more about Professor Fones and his work online at

John Worsey: In this series, we've covered amazing technology, revolutionary approaches to our environments and hope you've learnt as much as I have. We love to hear your thoughts on the ideas and applications for how our work impacts your world. So get in touch with us on social media using the hashtag Life Solved. And if you have a friend that would find the episode interesting, do share it with them too and start a conversation.

John Worsey: That's it from me and the team in Portsmouth for now. But we'll be back again soon with more great ideas.

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