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Small labs floating in the sea

To control the sea pollution with autonomous sensors, mainly in fish farms. This is the goal of two European projects, ‘Sea on a chip’ and ‘BRAAVOO’. They have been recently approved and count on the CSIC’s participation.

‘Sea on a chip’ and ‘Braavoo’, are aimed at finding an alternative solution To control the sea pollution with autonomous sensors, mainly in fish farms.Controlling the pollution in the sea needs a permanent monitoring at different points: ocean currents constantly flow and where today water is clean tomorrow could be found toxins from algae or pollutants from spills

This permanent control is especially important in the case of fish farm facilities, not only to control the water where fish grow is clean but also because this activity can generate waste that can affect the marine environment. Nowadays, this pollution monitoring is based on taking samples and sending them to the laboratory to be analyzed, which can take several days to obtain results.

Two European projects that have just been approved, ‘Sea on a chip’ and ‘Braavoo’, are aimed at finding an alternative solution based on autonomous sensors with remote control. Several centres at the CSIC are involved in both projects.

Floating sensors: a network of mini-labs

The project ‘Sea on a chip’ will develop a pollution control system based on miniaturized chip sensors, which will be installed around the perimeter of the fish farm.

The project is led by Damià Barceló, research professor at the CSIC's  Instituto de Diagnóstico Ambiental y Estudios del Agua (IDAEA).  Marinella Farré, scientist at the same centre, is the project manager.

Farré explains that “we want to place the sensor chips on mini-buoys, which are as small as about a third of a match-box. Every buoy will transport a chip of no more than 10 centimetres, with a battery to provide energy and all the necessary reactants for the analysis. They will have also the electronic components for the reception and transmission of data”.  Based on the “lab-on-a-chip” concept, every mini-buoy will be an autonomous lab.

Every chip will have biosensors to analyze 6 or 7 compounds, which are representative of the kind of pollution to be controlled, such as natural toxins from algae or emergent pollutants, polybrominated compounds or antibiotics.

“We want to place the sensor chips on mini-buoys, which are as small as about a third of a match-box".

To develop the biosensors, the scientists already have available already a chemical library of several antibodies which bind and recognize different pollutants. This chemical library was obtained in previous research by the group led by Pilar Marco, at the CSIC’s Instituto de Química Avanzada de Catalunya (IQAC). They participate in the project, together with the CSIC’s Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Barcelona (ICMAB).

“We are working to develop a flexible and low-cost technology, which can be adapted to the different circumstances and whose sensors can be easily replaced”, points out Marinella Farré. 

One of the most interesting aspects is that it will be possible to interact by remote control with the sensor chips. “The chips will send the results to a central station and, depending on the results – for instance, if there is a pollution alert- it will be possible to send new orders to make the chips focus on some special pollutant or to make analysis more often.

The ‘Sea on a chip’ project has 17 partners from 9 countries (Austria, Spain,  France, Greece, Italy, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, Romania and Sweden). It has a budget of just over 5,5 million Euros.

Lab on a catamaran

‘BRAAVOO’ is another European project aimed also at controlling marine pollution. In this case, the goal is to develop a floating lab on an autonomous small catamaran, which will be equipped with solar panels to provide energy. The catamaran will be remotely controlled and the results of the analysis done through the route will be sent to a central data acquisition unit.

In 'BRAAVOO', the goal is to develop a floating lab on an autonomous small catamaran

The catamaran will have different biosensors. On one hand, optical immunosensors, as they are extremely sensitive and precise when detecting target pollutants. On the other hand, a second type of biosensors based on bacterial cells to detect pollutants such as mercury. Also, biosensors based on micro-algae reactions, which can be used to assess the possible presence of pollutants and toxins and their effects.

‘BRAAVOO’  counts on the participation of two CSIC centres: the Instituto de Diagnostico Ambiental y Estudios del Agua (IDAEA)  and the Centro de Investigación en Nanotecnologia y Nanociencia (CIN2). It has a global budget of 3’5 Million Euros and 9 partners from 7 countries (Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Ireland, Israel, Italy and Switzerland).