A bio-sensor developed by Scottish researchers could herald a new age in sewage monitoring – replacing old methods of manually taking liquid samples and sending them away for lab tests.

Academics at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences have worked with an innovation on developing a tiny sensor the size of a SIM card that acts like a biological swab.

The minuscule device can be dipped in a variety of a liquids and be used in a range of industries including water monitoring, food and drink manufacturing, pharmaceutical development, agriculture, and aquaculture.

It could replace costly and cumbersome health and safety regimes that rely on detecting chemical contamination by manually taking liquid samples and sending them away for lab-based testing.

This is usually done infrequently, meaning problems caused by issues like excess oxygen, exposure to extreme conditions, or cross-contamination during production processes can go undetected for some time.

The new technology would allow teams to test for foreign pollutants remotely, providing real-time 24/7 readings, using a natural microorganism that causes a reaction when certain chemicals are found. The team – which received funding from the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) – plans to launch the tool, called Nanosensr, under a new spin-out company next year.

Recent data released by Scottish Water showed that sewage overflowed directly into Scotland’s rivers and other water courses more than 14,000 times last year – the highest figure since records began[1]. The new bio-sensor could help detect such events instantly and determine whether water is safe.

Dr James Flewellen, research associate and biosensor commercialisation team lead at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Many industries depend on routine health and safety and quality checks to ensure the products they are manufacturing are fit-for-purpose. However, the current process for detecting potential contaminants can be complex, expensive and slow. Instead of sending away samples for lab testing, we have developed a unique biosensor device that combines biology with electrical engineering to help detect potential issues with chemical contamination in liquids at point-of-use and in real time.

“The technology could be applied to a range of settings and sectors, from checking whether drinking water is safe to monitoring fermentation processes in the drinks industry. So far, we have proof that the bioengineering and biosensor concept works, and the next stage is to refine the equipment so that it is waterproof and can withstand a range of operating conditions, such as temperature variations.”