An EU-funded project has developed and deployed cost-effective marine sensors to monitor and provide a more complete picture of the health of our planet's oceans. Some of the sensors are already on the market and patents are pending.
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Researchers need a way of monitoring the state of oceans on a regular and continuous basis in order to accurately identify potential environmental hazards. For example, being able to accurately measure the nutrient content of water can alert scientists to an oversupply and potentially harmful algal blooms.
Analysing changing levels of CO2 provides data on the impact of climate change and ocean acidification. A key challenge to date, however, has been the cost of installing sensitive monitoring systems in the sea, as well as the time it takes to extract and analyse the data.
In response, the EU-funded SENSEOCEAN project has developed a multifunctional package of sensors, each of which is small, low cost and can be mass produced commercially. The sensors are usable for extended periods of time on different platforms out at sea including autonomous vehicles, buoys, observatories and devices that measure conductivity, temperature and depth.
Many project partners are already selling products that were developed during the SENSEOCEAN project, says project coordinator Doug Connelly from the Natural Environment Research Council in the UK. Scientists are able to use the data from these sensors to address key environmental issues such as nutrient cycling in estuaries and biological community structure in the high Arctic, amongst other applications.
Deep in the Mariana Trench
One product that was brought to market during the lifetime of the project was the Field DataLogger Mini, designed to connect sensors and store data after deployment. A customised version of this has already been deployed in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific.
In addition, three patents are pending and a fluorometry system used to identify the presence and amount of specific molecules is due be released onto the market in the very near future, says Connelly.
We are looking at protecting and then exploiting the integrated sensor package as a complete system that can be used in a modular way for specific applications, he adds.
The project has also provided regulatory and monitoring organisations with a new set of tools to increase their ability to protect our environment. A good example of this is the nitrous oxide sensor to monitor wastewater plants.
Successful sensory deployment
The pioneering project began by defining the electronics, data management, interfaces and biofouling protection technologies needed to develop sturdy ocean-worthy sensors.
These technologies formed the basis for designing and then validating the sensor package, says Connelly.
A number of world firsts were then carried out. These included the first demonstration of a lab-on-chip sensor an integrated circuit capable of carrying out multiple lab functions such as chemical analysis as part of an Argo float. Argo is a collaborative international programme that uses floats to take various ocean measurements.
We recorded the longest deployment of a fluorimeter system which looks at types of plant pigments to better understand the phytoplankton community in the Arctic, and deployed a nutrient sensor for two years, says Connelly. We also developed a sensor for silicate and phosphate.
State of the art manufacturing processes such as 3D printing was employed to develop some new sensors. In addition to their successful deployment at sea, the project also made progress towards developing a standardised data management system capable of integrating these elements together.
We expect research and development of the sensors to continue, driven by emerging market opportunities, says Connelly. There will also be further enhancements to the manufacturing processes in order to create economies of scale to reduce the cost of these sensors.