The National Science Foundation has awarded nearly $200,000 to two University of Texas at Arlington researchers teaming with a private company to make an affordable, environmentally friendly field analyzer for arsenic levels in water.
The new technology was invented by Purnendu "Sandy" Dasgupta, UT Arlington's Jenkins Garrett Professor of Chemistry, while working on a previous National Science Foundation grant. Aditya Das, senior research scientist at the UT Arlington Research Institute, and Scott Evans, president and co-founder of Texas-based technology company Chipotle Business Group, will direct the new project along with Dasgupta.
"In developing countries indigenous groundwater arsenic contamination is a very big problem, so it makes sense to build some way to detect this element in water so that we can classify what water is drinkable and what is not in remote areas," said Das, who is also a member of the UT Arlington College of Engineering faculty. "Dr. Dasgupta's approach allows for detection of two different types of arsenic in a very 'green' way."
Arsenic is one of 10 chemicals the World Health Organization lists as a major public health concern, with millions of people at risk of chronic exposure in developing countries. Chronic exposure, which has also occurred in the U.S., can lead to serious health problems, including fatal cancers.
The WHO has set acceptable levels at 10 micrograms per liter, but most current methods of detection lack the sensitivity needed to determine risk. Current analyzers also use toxic chemicals such as lead and mercury in their processes, which leaves a question of safe disposal.
"Successfully bringing a technology like Dr. Dasgupta's arsenic analyzer to the market is of great value in terms of human health worldwide, but it takes the work of a team composed of many different talents," said Carolyn Cason, UT Arlington vice president for research. "At national research institutions such as UT Arlington we are fortunate to have great minds like Dr. Dasgupta and Dr. Das and solid relationships with private businesses like Chipotle that can help see this process through."
Dasgupta's detector is based on the intense chemiluminescence, a light resulting from a chemical reaction, which occurs during the gas phase reaction of the arsenic compound arsine and ozone. The detector uses a graphite cathode and electrical power that can be provided by a rechargeable battery. Results can show arsenic contamination to sub-part per billion levels without using the toxic chemicals employed in other methods.
Dasgupta's detector research was one of less than 30 chemistry research projects in the U.S. designated as an "Exemplar of Excellence" by the NSF's 2010 Chemistry Committee of Visitors.
Dasgupta was born in India and has family connections to Bangladesh - one of the countries where arsenic contamination has been most devastating.
"I still feel umbilical connections to that part of the world," Dasgupta said. "Whatever I can do to improve things there is merely an effort to pay back an infinitesimal amount of what I owe".
UT Arlington Research Institute, or UTARI, is in Fort Worth and works with scientists on the University's main campus to identify projects with commercial applications. Das said UTARI will construct a prototype of Dasgupta's concept that can be used for field work. Another important component will be the ability to differentiate between types of arsenic, one of which is more harmful than the other.
The additional funding for the project was awarded by the NSF's Partnerships for Innovation: Accelerating Innovation Research - Technology Translation program. The 18-month grant began June 1.
"This partnership demonstrates how University researchers can work together with industry to get their technology into the hands of those that can benefit," said Evans, a UT Arlington alumnus whose company focuses on water analysis around the world. Besides working with Dasgupta and Das on the product design, Chipotle will also research the market and complete a business plan for the arsenic analyzer. UT Arlington students in a class taught by Bob Rogers, clinical professor of marketing, will also help with the business plan.
Das expects the device would eventually cost less than $5,000 and could be invaluable for government or charity organizations looking to protect the public.
"We envision this device to be very easy to use and very informative," he said.