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How safe is the water you drink? A MEMS device called lab-on-a-chip allows municipal water treatment plants the ability to quickly make sure our drinking water isn't contaminated.
April 14th, 2008
A few months ago, the city of Paradise Valley (which is part of the Phoenix metro area), temporarily banned residents from drinking tap water or using it to prepare food. This was because a suspected cancer-causing agent, trichloroethylene (TCE), was found in the water supply. At four times the maximum level considered safe by the environmental protection agency!
The big issue here was the fact that residents unknowingly continued to use the contaminated water for nearly an entire day before being notified. The reason that happened is because the water treatment facility isn't staffed overnight and no one was present to conduct water quality tests.
Not too long after this story hit the news, the Associated Press published the results of an extensive investigation in which they discovered that a "vast array of pharmaceuticals have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans."
And the issue isn't confined to the United States. According to the story, "more than 100 different pharmaceuticals have been detected in water throughout Asia, Australia, Canada, and Europe." It's basically a problem everywhere.
About a week after that story made headlines, officials in Colorado warned residents living in a small town in the southern part of the state to stop drinking their water because it tested positive for bacteria believed to be Salmonella. An outbreak of Salmonella-related illnesses in the area led to the alert.
Needless to say, all of these warnings raise questions about the safety of our drinking water.
Here's where MEMS and nanotech fit in. A MEMS device called lab-on-a-chip, which is more frequently being referred to as a nanosensor, is being put to use to help monitor what's in our drinking water.
I've spoken about lab-on-a-chip before in previous podcasts, but it's basically about the size of a thumbdrive and has super tiny channels etched into it. To test what's in water, you place a small sample of water in the chip, and as it moves through the channels, the water reacts with various materials (and in some cases nanomaterials) placed within the channels that allows you to detect whatever is it you want to test for. In this case, test results come back in about ten minutes.
A company by the name of Sensicore makes these chips specifically for use in city water treatment facilities. Right now they can test for things like chlorine, fluoride, phosphates and copper, but they could feasibly test for anything. The company would just need to create chips with the right kind of materials that would react in the presence of specific chemicals or bacteria.
Speaking of water, in this week's radio show we'll find out what nanoparticles of iron have to do with the ocean, learn how MEMS devices are helping to detect bird flu, and we'll spend most of the show talking with the EPA about their regulation of nanomaterials.
You can listen to the entire show on bournereport.com or look for Bourne Report Radio in iTunes.
This article is a transcript of the Bourne Report Podcast #90.
Want to know more? Please visit: http://www.bournereport.com
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