Monitoring ocean environments with microsensor technologies

Accurately analysing the health of the Earth’s oceans will soon be attainable with the development of groundbreaking microsensor technologies from TechOceanS.

Technologies for Ocean Sensing (TechOceanS) is an €8.9M funded project by Europe’s Horizon 2020 programme; the project aims to design and manufacture revolutionary microsensor technologies that will enable scientists to precisely monitor and measure the ever-changing ocean environments. Major advancements in microsensor technologies may significantly enhance strategies that can mitigate the effects of climate change, as measuring sea levels, composition, and ecosystems can provide a sophisticated barometer to check our progress in achieving environmental goals.

The TechOceanS project is led by the UK’s National Oceanographic Centre (NOC), which is comprised of partners from France, Germany, Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Enhancing ocean monitoring

The innovative microsensor technologies will be proficient in obtaining crucial data on the ocean’s biology, biogeochemistry, and ecosystems that were previously inaccessible. Their low-cost microsensor technologies can locate and examine chemical contaminants and environmental DNA and biotoxins. The team has reduced the size and power requirements of their microsensors, meaning that their remote platforms and autonomous underwater vehicles can efficiently produce a comprehensive overview of the health of ocean environments.

Chemistry professor Fiona Regan, TechOceanS project partner and Director of Dublin City University’s Water Institute, said: “Right now, if you want to check a body of water for toxins, you have to physically take a sample of that water and run your tests on it, mostly in a lab. This is a costly and time-consuming process. In TechOceanS, one of the sensors we’re working on uses antibodies to detect even faint traces of toxins.

“By integrating these into an automated ‘lab on chip’ based sensor and putting that on a deployable platform, we will be able to take hundreds or thousands of readings throughout the water. With this automated technology, we can collect more samples and analyse them remotely at a fraction of the cost of current techniques. This will provide a whole new level of useful information for places like aquaculture farms, public beaches and areas where scientists are monitoring biodiversity.”

An array of microsensor technologies

The team is currently developing multiple microsensor technologies, including a bioassay sensor for measuring organic contaminants and a micro-cytometer capable of detecting and analysing microplastics and phytoplankton. As the project evolves, these state-of-the-art microsensors will be implemented into robust systems that can be operated remotely and at substantial ocean depths.

These technologies will be fitted with dual detection/analysis capabilities so that data can be broadcasted back continuously to researchers on the surface from sensors that have long autonomous or semi-autonomous deployments. This considerable advancement will allow scientists to survey vast areas of the ocean more efficiently and economically.

Regan said: “We have a great team of people, and this project is really about communication across the disciplines and coming together to the same path. We’re working with biologists and engineers and combining these biosensors with new optical and detection technology, and it’s really coming together. Getting to piggyback on the knowledge and technology offered by NOC is a huge advantage and has allowed us access to a range of new targets for our sensors.”

Other ventures

The EU-funded TechOceanS project is also working across several other scientific themes, such as groups working on genomics, imaging and optics, and cross-cutting approaches to sharing best practices, testing, and applying novel technologies. The project will refine these themes throughout its four-year duration and incorporate them into integrated platforms. The overall aim of TechOceanS is to achieve pilot, paradigm-shifting ocean monitoring technologies that require a low-cost and minimal demand on existing infrastructure, meaning they can be replicated in other countries no matter their resources.

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