UC Researchers Awarded NSF Grant to Develop Water Sensors

Contact:  Ashley Duvelius
Date:       December 20, 2017

An interdisciplinary team of University of Cincinnati (UC) researchers has been awarded a $359,951 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop sensors to address a crucial environmental problem in monitoring toxins in water.

A satellite image of algal blooms around the Great Lakes, visible as swirls of green in this image of Lake St. Clair and in western Lake Erie, taken on July 28, 2015 and released on Aug. 4, 2015. TIME/NASA/Goddard's MODIS Rapid Res/EPA

A satellite image of algal blooms around the Great Lakes, visible as swirls of green in this image of Lake St. Clair and in western Lake Erie, taken on July 28, 2015 and released on Aug. 4, 2015. Photo: TIME/NASA/Goddard's MODIS Rapid Res/EPA

The grant is funded by the CBET Division of Chemical Bioengineering Environmental and Transport Systems of NSF. The ultimate outcome will be to develop highly-selective and fast-responding sensors for the detection and quantification of toxins in drinking water and sources of drinking water supplies.

The presence of high concentrations of cyanotoxins in several freshwaters, some of which serve as sources of drinking water supplies, seriously threatens human and environmental health. In 2014, for example, the cyanobacterial harmful algal bloom (HAB) in Lake Erie affected the drinking water for more than 500,000 people in Toledo, OH alone.*

The project, entitled "Nanosensor for the Point-of-Use Detection of Hepatotoxic Microcystins in Water," will specifically develop and test a novel sensor designed to detect and quantify algal toxins frequently found in freshwaters.

This research aims to address the urgent need of rapid on-site monitoring and the quantification of microcystins in surface waters experiencing algal blooms. Microcystins are a group of frequently found cyanotoxins in freshwaters experiencing problems of HAB formation.

“We are honored to receive support from NSF. The award will allow us to continue our research activities and directly advance the knowledge and understanding while also promoting teaching, training and learning at UC. Through this research effort, we look forward to creating vital solutions in the realm of water quality and we hope to get closer to presenting a point-of-care sensor for environmental applications to UC and the scientific community,” said Dr. Dionysios D. Dionysiou, leader and principal investigator of this grant.

Dr. Dionysiou, PhD and UC College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering Professor, is an expert in water quality research. He performs research in the fields of water quality, treatment, and reuse, remediation of Harmful Algal Blooms/cyanotoxins, contaminants of emerging concern, environmental nanotechnology, and water sustainability. “When focusing on ‘big ideas,’ interdisciplinary teamwork is the key in advances of critical thinking and problem solving,” said Dr. Dionysiou.

Another leader on this project and co-PI is McMicken College of Arts and Sciences Department of Chemistry faculty member Dr. William R. Heineman, a Distinguished Research Professor and expert in electroanalytical and bioanalytical chemistry. Dr. Heineman focuses on the development of the electrochemical biosensor aspects of the project. 

Dr. Vesselin Shanov, CEAS Professor of Chemical and Materials Engineering and Director of the UC Nanoworld Lab, also serves as co-PI. His expertise is in synthesis and application of carbon nanostructured materials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene. Dr. Shanov`s efforts in this project will focus on employing nanostructured carbon as an active electrode of the developed sensor.

Dr. Ian Papautsky, University of Illinois at Chicago Professor, is a partner on this project, specializing in the investigation of microfluidic systems.

Dr. Dionysiou

Dr. Dionysios D. Dionysiou

Dr. Heineman

Dr. William R. Heineman

Dr. Vesselin Shanov

Dr. Vesselin Shanov

This project aims to create nanostructured biosensors for selective identification and quantification of toxins in water. Two outcomes are targeted: 1) demonstrate nanostructured sensors for point-of-use determination of toxic compounds, and 2) validate sensor performance with real-world water samples. The fabricated device will be evaluated for its ability to detect and quantify toxins in natural surface water obtained from various freshwater aquatic systems that experience severe occurrence of cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms.

Dr. Dionysiou explains, “This study will also provide a fundamental understanding of the principles for creating nano-biosensors used in selective identification and quantification of a wide range of organic and inorganic toxic compounds in natural water environments."

Vasileia Vogiazi, student research assistant, working in Dr. Dionysiou's lab.

Vasileia Vogiazi, student research assistant, working in Dr. Dionysiou's lab.

The researchers hope to provide a significant contribution to the field of nano-biosensing for monitoring water quality. The nanotechnology-based biosensors introduced in this research can be further developed for in-situ monitoring of water contaminants and will have a tremendous implication for managing sources of drinking water and protecting human health. Additionally, these efforts could prove to be complementary to other on-going efforts towards the restoration and sustainability of surface aquatic systems.

According to Dr. Dionysiou, “This NSF award will benefit students from underrepresented groups, while growing productive academic community partnerships. Bringing together a research team of graduate students, undergraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty will directly advance the knowledge and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning."

Vasileia Vogiazi, a student research assistant working on this project for her doctoral studies, agrees, “Innovative and interdisciplinary approaches will be key in dealing with tomorrow’s scientific challenges, this is a great opportunity for me to develop the skills to meet those challenges.”


*Source: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44871.pdf