Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Tiny device promises simple, fast phosphate detection in waterways

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Phosphate, a key ingredient in fertiliser, can get into waterways through run-off. 
Associate Professor Deborah Crittenden says the phosphate device could boost New Zealand’s export earnings. Photo: University of Canterbury
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A pen-sized device to accurately detect phosphate in waterways is being developed by scientists at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha University of Canterbury

Associate Professor of Physical and Chemical Sciences Deborah Crittenden said the device will be  reusable and contained in an easy-to-use, portable marker-pen size device that can be put into rivers and streams. 

They could boost New Zealand’s agritech exports and generate up to $8 million a year in export earnings while also cleaning up local waterways, Crittenden said. 

Phosphate, a key ingredient in fertiliser, can get into waterways through run-off. 

“Phosphates can cause damaging algal blooms, but we want to provide farmers with real-time, accurate test kits that will allow them to better monitor and control fertiliser use on their land, with test results sent instantly to their computer or phone,” Crittenden said. 

“Recent nutrient management laws introduced by the government require them to pay if they are predicted to breach certain levels of fertiliser run-off in waterways, and the advice we’ve received from farmers is that there is strong demand for a tool that accurately measures actual phosphate levels in waterways,” she said. 

Crittenden said currently there isn’t a simple, chemical-free way of monitoring phosphate levels.  Phosphate is odourless and colourless, both to the naked eye and to sophisticated instruments. 

“But we’ve already developed very sophisticated ways of sensing phosphate in our bodies – so we are going to learn from nature to develop novel light-sensitive biosensors.” 

The underlying technology could also have applications in medical, industrial and veterinary settings.

 “The modular design of our bio-nanosensors means that this approach can be extended to detecting other pathogens and environmental contaminants,” Crittenden said. 

“Our end goal is to produce and manufacture our phosphate sensors in Aotearoa New Zealand, creating local jobs and ensuring all of the benefits of our technology are fully realised in Aotearoa New Zealand.” 

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