Clean Water for a Developing World


SANTA CLARA, California – Water contamination is a common problem experienced in underserved communities, especially in rural areas. To provide clean water for a developing world, a team of engineering students at Santa Clara University pioneered an innovative and inexpensive way of testing water for harmful substances such as arsenic by developing an app that interfaces with a mobile device, which could run an immediate, onsite analysis of water.

Xavier Savarimuthu is deeply concerned about arsenic contamination in West Bengal. The head of environmental science department at St. Xavier’s College in Kolkata, India had encountered a man who had been drinking arsenic contaminated water at a concentration of 1,200 micrograms per litre, which is 100 times more than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) limit of ten micrograms per litre.

“The number one problem is to find out if the water is contaminated,” emphasized Savarimuthu.

Providing clean water is a crucial initiative as it is estimated that 780 million people around the world lack access to clean water and 3.4 million people die from water related diseases. In West Bengal, arsenic contamination has been an acute problem for the past four decades, but not all are aware if the water has been contaminated as arsenic is a “naturally occurring containment” in water and difficult to detect.

Savarimuthu partnered together with the Santa Clara University’s School of Engineering to come up with an innovative solution as prolonged exposure to excessive levels of arsenic could result in a higher risk of heart diseases, stroke, kidney and liver diseases, diabetes, cancer of the bladder, lung cancer and skin cancer.

“Delivering an accurate on-site analysis of contamination levels is the critical first step in effectively treating arsenic contaminated ground water,” according to the School of Engineering’s Frugal Innovation Lab (FIL.)

FIL is the social justice arm of the Santa Clara’s School of Engineering and it aims to provide inventive solutions for emerging markets in three main areas: global health, clean water and renewable energy.

FIL’s solution was to develop a probe that could detect arsenic levels and interface with an android device to analyze its results. The project was called “Lab-on-a-Chip Arsenic Detector” for affordable water analysis and it was funded by Hewlett-Packard and steered by FIL’s engineering team. The collaboration saw the cooperation of three engineering disciplines–bio-engineering, electrical engineering and computer engineering. The bio-engineers were tasked to work on the sensor, the electrical engineers created the electro-chemical analyzer and the computer engineers wrote the code for the application.

“The bio-engineers developed a probe that detects pathogens in the water,” said John Seubert in a Santa Clara University newsletter. The graduate student started working on the Lab-on-a-Chip project two years ago. “The electrical engineers are working with a micro-controller that connects the probe to an android phone; as the computer engineer, I worked on an android app that analyzes the data.”

The mobile and disposable sensor can be immersed into any water source to test for arsenic levels, after which it provides data to an android smart phone, which is able to immediately display the test results as safe or unsafe to the user. In addition, it has the capability to store a log of previous measurements, which are indicated in a map.

The portable Lab-on-a-Chip “incorporates FIL’s 10 core competencies,” which includes affordability. The price tag of the paper sensor with gold nanoparticles was created at the cost of $3. In comparison, plastic or glass sensors are usually constructed for hundreds of dollars.

“The goal is not to design something that sits on a table and looks pretty,” Elizabeth Sweeny, FIL program manager said in a newsletter. “It must be scaled for production and implemented in the field.”

Several students travelled to Kolkata, India with a ready prototype of Lab-on-a-Chip to run field tests and collect crucial data. The engineering students tested the water pathogen detector in more than 34 sites in rural India during the recent summer.

Although the Lap-on-a-Chip is still in the development stage, the engineers strive to perfect the integrated mobile device, which is capable of delivering an accurate onsite analysis of arsenic levels in ground and well water, so as to provide clean water for the developing world.

FIL continues to offer an innovative, collaborative environment for students to “evaluate technology solutions used in the field,” in order to boost the development of mobile applications for the under-served communities around the world that often have “limited access to life-sustaining resources.”

Radha Basu, director of FIL, commented, “For the United States to remain competitive, we must provide products and services to the growing masses, and we have to innovate to the needs of the billions of potential consumers at the bottom or middle of the income pyramid.”

– Flora Khoo

Sources:, Santa Clara University
Photo: Vintage 3D


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