Students set to clean up with water pollutant detection device

Four UAE University students came up with a project as an alternative to the bulky, time consuming and expensive methods employed by scientists for use in developing countries as well as the UAE.

From left, Salma Abubaker, Zaineb Saeed and Shefaa Abou Namous are three of the four United Arab Emirates University students working in Al Ain to develop a portable device to detect heavy metals and other pollutants in water. Delores Johnson / The National
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AL AIN // A portable device that can easily detect pollutants in water used for crops and landscaping has been designed and made by four UAE University students.

The project, which is awaiting patent, was created as an alternative to the bulky, time consuming and expensive methods employed by scientists for use in developing countries as well as the UAE.

It will be used to test grey water – waste from household appliances such as washing machines, sinks and baths that contain traces of household cleaning products, dirt, hair and grease – before it is used in fields to avoid contaminating produce.

The device can also detect traces of heavy metals in water, which are measured using Inductively Coupled Plasma. But this is costly, high maintenance and requires scientists to bring their water samples to the lab for analysis.

“Nowadays it is very important to analyse things cheaply,” said Thies Thiemann, professor of chemistry at UAEU. “It is a question of cost very often, especially for developing countries where price is definitely a concern.

“You want a device you can take into the countryside that is cheap to run and low maintenance.”

Arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury are known to induce damage in organs, even at low exposure levels. They are also classified as human carcinogens by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Dr Saber Abdel Baki, who is supporting the project, believes there are many uses for the device.

“Most water supply companies in the UAE have labs and they are working very well in terms of analysing the drinking water, so we don’t have to worry about our water here,” Dr Abdel Baki said.

“But the point is that here, what we do sometimes have is grey water and that is often put on to the fields or the road-dividers where you have plants. So you have to be sure that you do not put a lot of heavy metals into the ground again.”

The main objective was to develop a device that can accurately detect very low concentrations of lead, and at the same time is easily carried and handled, so scientists don’t need to carry the sample from the main source to the lab for analysis, said Salma Abubaker, one of the students on the team.

“I was interested in this because I learnt how toxic lead is to the living organisms, especially at low concentrations,” Ms Abubaker said. “Also, I was aware of how significant the impact the device will have on water safety, which is one of the most critical topics for people and the environment.”

Zeinab Saeed, another team member, said she hoped the device would help developing countries “where dangerous contaminants are still being released into the environment”.

“They can’t afford to buy very expensive analytical instruments and that is where our device becomes more effective and efficient,” Ms Saeed said. “I joined this team because research is my passion.

“Since I was young, I kept reading and hearing about successful scientists who made a lot of contributions to the world and I always wanted to be like them.”​