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Microfluidic Chip Sensor Makes Swimming Pools Safer


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Incorrect pool chemical levels can adversely affect swimmers' skin, eyes, and immune system, or create a risk of infection.

A new microchip that enables continuous monitoring of pH and chlorine levels in swimming pools will vastly improve water safety and hygiene for more than 2.7 million Australians as new research shows it can deliver consistent and accurate pool chemistry for reliable pool management.

Developed by the University of South Australia using world-class fabrication capabilities, in partnership with electronics research and manufacturing company Tekelek Australia, the technology makes monitoring swimming pools more affordable, more reliable, and easy to install — even on existing pools.

UniSA researcher and micro/nanofabrication expert, Associate Professor Craig Priest, says the microfluidic chip could be a vital addition to Australian swimming pools, particularly as COVID-19 makes people more aware of the importance of pool hygiene.

"Pool chemistry keeps swimmers safe from viruses and bacteria, yet getting it right takes a lot of effort," Priest says. "Backyard swimming pool management would be a lot easier with a continuous and automated water quality sensor that can reliably measure accurate chlorine and pH levels all summer. The sensor that we've developed is essentially a 'lab-on-a-chip' — a network of microscopic pipes running through a credit card-sized chip. "

The chip quickly and continuously does the work of a chemistry laboratory while poolside, Priest says.

"For pool owners, this removes the arduous task of manually testing swimming pools and avoids overuse of pool chemicals, which saves time, money and, most importantly, the risk of infection from incorrect pool chemistry."

A network of microscopic pipes run through the credit card-sized chip.

In Australia, 2.7 million people (13 percent of the population) live in a house with a swimming pool. Currently, existing pool monitoring systems — commonly wireless swimming pool sensors with expensive hardware, or labor-intensive manual testing kits available from hardware stores — are used to monitor the safety of chemicals in pools.

Asking pool owners to be backyard chemists could turn summer fun into a health hazard, Priest says. "Many of the domestic pools samples showed flaws in manual pool testing," he says.

For example, a family of new homeowners asked their local pool shop to perform a quick water check and were told there was 'enough' chlorine, but were not told it was actually too much.

"A few weeks later, the chlorine levels dropped to zero, which not only highlighted a problem with the chlorinator, but also showed how quickly pool chemistry can become unsafe," Priest says.

An over-dosage of chlorine can cause adverse health effects to the skin, eyes, and immune system, while under-dosage creates risks of infection for swimmers.

The researchers tested samples from 12 swimming pools (nine domestic, two public, and one outdoor public) on multiple occasions. Every sample had its own ambient situation — frequent public use, high leaf matter, different chlorination methods — ensuring realistic sensor challenges.

The new microchip will deliver consistent and accurate pool chemistry. Research partner Stephen Thornton of Tekelek Australia says the microchip has mass potential for both private and public swimming pools.

"While we generally feel safe in our own backyard, all swimming pools need to be accurately and efficiently monitored to ensure water safety," Thornton says. "We've been able to develop a product that truly meets the needs of the market, while also ensuring public health and safety."

The research team is in the final stages of developing the microchip with industry and hopes to have it on the market soon.


 

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