Clearing the water

Posted: November 12, 2018

Buckeye engineers are making technical strides in detecting harmful algal water toxins

Two student stand on a bridge overlooking the Olentangy River near Ohio State
From left, Seungjun Lee and Paul Bertani
In August 2018, Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Wu Lu and his team received a three-year, $360,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a portable, easy-to-use biosensor capable of quickly detecting multiple toxins present in harmful algal blooms (HABs).

It’s the latest grant award for Lu who has played an active role in detecting HABs since applying for and receiving a $100,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE) via the Ohio Sea Grant Program in 2014, following the Toledo water emergency.

Lu said Ohio State entered into the scientific research of detecting HAB water toxins a bit late in the game —but is making up for lost time.

“It became a serious issue,” Lu said.

According the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the current sensors used to detect harmful algae toxins are not accurate enough and they are not user-friendly out in the field.

In 2017 Lu worked with a team of students and collaborators to create a simple, cheap, user-friendly and effective electronic device capable of testing for specific toxins at a more precise level than the safety requirements set by both the EPA and the World Health Organization.

Electrical and computer engineering PhD student Paul Bertani was conducting electroporation research in biomedical-related projects when he joined Lu’s team and began fabricating devices to bring their research to life.

“Our technology is fast, much more sensitive and also highly specific. It does not require sophisticated operation procedures or equipment. You don’t need a microscope,” Lu said. “It’s just not feasible to take expensive equipment into a boat and do a field test.”

Initially, the first device they designed was intended to detect one contaminant.

“Now, we are developing sensors capable of detecting multiple agents—the four common toxins that are found in HAB. These will be sensors for the detection of these toxins, so they can be used in the field or in rivers, and also in the watershed and water factories,” Lu said.

This summer the group conducted field tests in several water infrastructure facilities in central Ohio.

Ohio State also joined another program available through the National Ocean and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), which has four water testing sites. One is on Long Island, another on Lake Erie, the third near San Francisco bay and the last in Hawaii.

“We are going to have devices ready in July to field test in Lake Erie, working with Professor Tim Davis at Bowling Green State University. They are going to drive boats and we are going to bring sensors into the field and maybe even the Maumee River—that’s one that has serious issues,” Lu said.

contributed by Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering