UC scientists design award-winning laser sensor for nitrates in water and soil

17 January 2018

A new laser detection tool being developed by two University of Canterbury chemistry experts may help farmers to pinpoint environmental problems and develop smart farming strategies to minimise impacts.

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    UC Chemistry academic Dr Deborah Crittenden says the new detection tool will lead to better monitoring of nutrient levels, which will enable more effective interventions to prevent further environmental damage.

A new laser detection tool being developed by two University of Canterbury (UC) chemistry experts may help farmers to pinpoint environmental problems and develop smart farming strategies to minimise impacts.

Over-production and distribution of nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates due to dairying and crop production is a particular problem in New Zealand. An unfortunate by-product of intensive agriculture and farming practices, high nitrate levels in water and soil are harmful to the environment and human health.

UC scientists – Dr Deborah Crittenden, a senior lecturer in physical chemistry and an associate investigator in the Biomolecular Interaction Centre, and environmental chemist Associate Professor Sally Gaw, a member of the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management – are collaborating to develop a laser sensor capable of measuring nitrates in the field.

The tool is currently at lab development stage but winning $20,000 from UC’s annual Tech Jumpstart competition and a further $35,000 from Astrolab, a business incubator providing commercialisation expertise, will help to transform their project into commercial reality. 

The sensor promises to be portable (it may eventually be deployable by drone) and cost-effective with a low-environmental impact. It will be capable of selecting only nitrates from the sample, avoiding other deposits or substances with similar structures. 

Dr Crittenden says this type of tool has never been tried or even proposed before in the context of developing nitrate sensors, and therefore represents “a real science stretch". It requires the development of new technologies, because existing sampling is performed using lab-based methods. 

“With the introduction of new legislative caps on nitrogen discharge, a portable nitrate measuring tool would enable farmers to conveniently measure nitrate levels on the farm, helping them to keep discharges within the new limits,” Dr Crittenden says. 

“Better monitoring of nutrient levels will enable more effective interventions to prevent further environmental damage.

“Similarly, levels of phosphate in waterways are also increasing due to over-use of fertilizers, leading to outbreaks of algal blooms and making water unfit for drinking and swimming. 

“There is therefore an urgent need to monitor nutrient levels in the field in real time.”

The scientists are recruiting a Master’s student to work on the project. Students interested in applying can contact Dr Crittenden or Associate Professor Gaw directly.

For further information please contact:

Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3631 | Mobile: +64 275 030 168margaret.agnew@canterbury.ac.nz
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