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IIT-Delhi: Shaping Sustainable Solutions

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The Department of Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT-Delhi) has developed a real-time water quality monitoring sensor using microorganisms that generate electricity. Termed “electroactive microorganisms,” these microbes produce an electrical current, a feature extensively studied for power generation and now applied to biosensing.

Image credits: Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur

The bioelectrochemical sensor employs “weak electricigens,” a subset of electroactive microbes that produce low levels of electricity. When these weak electricigens encounter a pollutant, their electrical current diminishes. Through continuous measurement of their extracellular current, this method enables the real-time monitoring of water quality.

This technology could serve as an early-warning system, complementing traditional monitoring methods that may be costly or not suitable for continuous round-the-clock operation. The sensor demonstrated responsiveness to various pesticides and possesses the capability for repeated use in long-term monitoring—an essential characteristic for regions frequently susceptible to water contamination.

The research paper, titled “A Weak Electricigen-Based Bioelectrochemical Sensor for Real-Time Monitoring of Chemical Pollutants in Water,” has been published in ACS Applied Bio Materials, a journal by the American Chemical Society.

In the future, this technology holds the potential to detect emerging contaminants not typically included in routine tests. Given the prevalence of weak electricigens in various natural environments, there is a larger scope for future on-site sensors and seamless integration into existing monitoring stations. These findings are pertinent to the broader implementation of water quality monitoring, aligning with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of achieving adequate water and sanitation by 2030.

Water bodies in India are facing increased pollution due to the unregulated release of untreated sewage, industrial pollutants, and agricultural runoff with harmful chemicals. The problem is exacerbated by the improper disposal of non-biodegradable waste, particularly plastics. The government has deployed technology solutions as a hopeful solution, with advanced water treatment systems capable of purifying contaminated water, and real-time monitoring coupled with data analytics facilitating early detection of pollution.

In 2021, the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur (IIT-Kanpur) created a web-based system, sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology and the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF), to monitor pollution levels in the Ganges River. The system was installed at the Laxman Ghat on the banks of the Ganges in Bithoor, a town in Kanpur.

As OpenGov Asia reported, the system can sense three parameters, namely, pH levels, conductivity, and the dissolved oxygen capacity of water. This can be further used to estimate total dissolved solids, specific gravity, and the presence of metallic ions in water. The system can autonomously collect data every 15 minutes and report it through a wireless network to the institute.

For self-sustenance, the platform is equipped with energy harvesting systems comprising solar cells and a vortex-induced vibration system that can extract energy from the river’s flow. It has an open-platform architecture so that other institutes can integrate similar projects with the IIT-Kanpur module.

More recently, the Meghalaya state government introduced an artificial intelligence-powered robotic boat to address plastic pollution in Umiam Lake. The Umkharh and Umshyrpi rivers flow through the state capital, Shillong, bringing large amounts of plastic waste every day and depositing it into the lake’s southern region. This area is only accessible by boat.

Through the non-profit Smart Village Movement collaborating with the state government, a Hong Kong-based company was selected to showcase its cleaning technology. The company’s small boat can extract 200-400 kg of waste daily.


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