A team of young scientists in Canada is developing a fascinating way to sense when water is contaminated. Their box, called the FRED or Field Ready Electrochemical Detector, contains “tunable” bacteria that react in the presence of unwanted substances. The device generates a electrical signal that can be transmitted wirelessly, so you don’t need to be anywhere near a site to know that it’s polluted.
“We genetically engineer bacteria to be responsive to a variety of different contaminants,” says Emily Hicks, one of six entrepreneurs behind the project. “You can leave this box on-site and then from there you can wirelessly monitor remote locations without needing to go there and physically take a sample yourself.”
The scientists started working on the FRED box while undergraduates at the University of Calgary. They showcased it at a competition for genetically engineered machines at MIT and, since graduating, they’ve set up a company to commercialize the product. They see the first applications in the mining and oil and gas industries, which have a need to check on remote sites and would normally have to send out personnel to actually visit in-person.
The box, which contains a series of cartridges containing the bacteria, is designed to sit near water and automatically take samples. In the presence of contaminants, the bacteria react to create a signal that can be transmitted via a mobile connection. The results can be viewed on a tablet or smartphone. In time, the students also hope to develop a consumer version, so people can monitor well or stream water.
Having won a series of student science contests and launched a successful crowdfunding campaign, the scientists hope now to win equity investment to develop their idea further. They’re currently running a makeshift lab in Calgary, but want to move to a more professional space soon.