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In developing countries, one of the leading causes of death still remains illnesses caused by water contamination. There is a great need for devices that can measure – and improve – water quality, particularly in remote areas. In a paper entitled “Portable device for the detection of colorimetric assays,” a group of researchers from the University of British Columbia discusses how they used 3D printing to create an inexpensive, portable diagnostic device for rapid water quality, acidity and nitrate concentration detection.

Nitrite, in particular, was chosen as an analyte to be detected by the device because it is a significant water pollutant all over the world.

“Nitrite is widely used as a preservative and additive in food production, bleaches and dyes in the industry, and fertilizer in agriculture,” said research engineer George Luka. “However, it is classified as a health hazard because high nitrite concentration in water can cause many diseases such as methemoglobinemia, miscarriages and central nervous system defects at birth.”

The researchers developed a relatively simple 3D printed device that is battery-powered, wirelessly connected and equipped with a Raspberry Pi for data processing, storage and exchange. An LED provides backlighting, and an 8-megapixel resolution digital camera is used to image and record the color change in five different cuvettes containing the specific reagents required to perform the colorimetric assay.

“Using a standalone device rather than a smartphone also reduces the potential setbacks caused by new models of phones in the future and any incompatibilities that may arise,” said Luka.

In addition, compared with images taken by smartphones, the use of a fixed camera reduces the risk of human error, which can compromise the repeatability, sensitivity and reliability of colorimetric assays. However, the researchers do envision the possibility of using a smartphone for outputting data in the future, to further increase accessibility without compromising accuracy or precision.

In addition to water analysis, the device can potentially also be used for urinalysis and other colorimetric assays for environmental and medical applications.

In several other cases, 3D printing has been used to develop devices to measure and/or improve water quality. A 3D printable material was developed earlier this year with the potential to remove pollutants from both water and air, and everyone from college students to elementary school children have come up with ideas for simple water filtration systems, using 3D printing either for prototyping or production in order to reduce costs and time. The device developed by the University of British Columbia researchers does not filter or clean water, and it’s only a proof of concept at this time, but it shows a lot of promise for detecting harmful pollutants in water, potentially preventing illnesses and deaths. Its portability means that it can be used easily in remote locations, where water quality testing is the most critical – and its easy, inexpensive fabrication means that it can be deployed quickly all over the world. This proof of concept has a great deal of potential for use in agriculture and medicine as well.

Authors of the paper include Luka, E. Nowak, J. Kawchuk, M. Hoorfar and H. Najjaran.

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