13.10.2022 - Green technology, Technology

University of Latvia researchers develop smart buoy for assessing water quality

The prototype of the smart buoy Spectromarine developed by researchers at the Institute of Solid State Physics (ISSP) of the University of Latvia is equipped with a microspectrometer that provides high-quality online measurements promptly informs about potential water pollution. One potential application for such a device is monitoring water quality in fish farms.

When assessing water quality, water samples are taken to a laboratory. This process is expensive and time-consuming. Results are delayed. Given that the water is constantly changing, by the time the data is collected, the situation may already be different. 

“The time when the sample is taken is very important. Water changes every day. For example, if the sun is shining, it changes by the hour. Given how expensive the process is now, water samples are rarely analysed, maybe even only a few times a year, because nobody has the money to do laboratory testing every day,” says Aleksejs Zolotarjovs, senior researcher and head of the Optical Materials Laboratory at the ISSP.

In the case of Spectromarine, testing is carried out in real time and virtually instantaneously using a microspectrometer. Explaining how this works, the researcher says that light is made up of waves of different wavelengths. The spectrometer separates these waves according to their length and indicates what substances are emitted or absorbed – light allows accurate detection of chemicals in the water, phytoplankton, etc.

“A lot of information can be obtained in this way,” says Zolotarjovs.

He stresses that this project is not trying to compete with laboratories, as smart buoys do not provide as extensive and accurate data as specialised water laboratories. But it provides data every 30 minutes – day and night, in the sun and rain, in summer and winter. “There is data on Baltic Sea water quality, but it is scarce. Quality data is not enough, you need a lot of it. Maybe these buoys can provide answers,” says Zolotarjovs.

Significantly cheaper than existing solutions on the market

“There are already smart buoys on the market, but they are quite expensive. In our opinion – unreasonably expensive. Moreover, the data these buoys provide is quite poor compared to the information that can be obtained from a buoy equipped with a microspectrometer. Our smart buoy could offer additional value to customers,” says Ģirts Ozoliņš, head of commercialisation at Spectromarine.

Current estimates suggest that the smart buoy could cost several thousand euros. The price depends on the sensor package that the customer wants.

“It is much cheaper than the smart buoys currently on the market, which cost up to 150,000 euros,” says Ozoliņš.

Current assumptions suggest that this product might be best suited to businesses that “grow” profits in the water, such as fish farms. For these companies, it is very important to be aware of the state of the water, which has a direct impact on the quality of the products. Such smart buoys could also be important for research institutions and government bodies.

The smart buoy can be used both in rivers and at sea. Asked how many buoys are needed and how close they should be, Zolotarjovs says that they can be placed at every kilometre along the river to see exactly where pollution is occurring. Whereas for fish farms, one might be enough. “In general, it’s a question of money,” he says.

A combination of sensors and algorithms

The smart buoy developed in the project includes all the classic water quality sensors for temperature, turbidity, conductivity, etc. The smart buoy can also detect phytoplankton, chlorophyll concentration, fuel and other pollution. Zolotarjovs stresses that it is not enough to add different sensors to the buoy. Its intelligence is determined not by the number of sensors, but by the data analysis algorithms developed by researchers at the ISSP.

“It is the conclusions we provide about water quality that are important, not the ‘bare’ data,” says Zolotarjovs.

Speaking about the future, Ozoliņš says that there are three development paths for this technology. One would be to sell the technology with all intellectual property rights, the other would be to license the technology, which would leave it in the hands of the ISSP. The third option is to form a joint venture with entrepreneurs and continue the development of the project. “It is not yet known what the most appropriate path would be in this case. In the spring, the commercialisation strategy will be much clearer,” he says.

Aligned with the objectives of the Sea 2030 mission

The Spectromarine’s smart buoy is one of four projects that have received support from the European Regional Development Fund under the Technology Transfer Programme administered by the Latvian Investment and Development Agency (LIAA). It co-funds projects that are in line with the priorities of the Sea 2030 mission. Physicists at the ISSP and the Optical Materials Laboratory of the University of Latvia work on research and measurements that are usually carried out with expensive and bulky devices. Researchers are well informed about the latest measuring instruments and equipment available on the market. Four years ago, they noticed that manufacturers were starting to offer a new product: the microspectrometer. To test this instrument, the researchers used it for analysis at sea. When this call for projects was launched, the laboratory headed by Zolotarjovs already had the idea of developing a smart buoy, with the microspectrometer as one of the measuring instruments.

The project budget is 222 thousand euros, 90% of which is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund, and 10% by the ISSP. The 13-month project consists of two parts. The first includes the development of a prototype and market research, while the second will involve the commercialisation and adaptation of the product to market requirements. The prototype is currently being developed and will be tested later this year in the ports of Engure and Roja. Researchers often work on very theoretical technologies, so Zolotarjovs is delighted to have the opportunity to be involved in a project that will result in a real product.

European expertise and equipment

More than 200 people work at the ISSP. They specialise in solid-state physics, which covers a wide range of fields. For example, one of the institute’s projects is developing a method to recover precious metals from various electronic components. More than 10 projects are carried out at the institute each year. The ISSP collaborates with both the European Space Agency and CERN. It also works on projects with military applications.

“Various optical measurements, sensor development, and prototyping are carried out at the ISSP. We can help companies to find out different things related to changes in different substances. We have European-level equipment and expertise,” says Zolotarjovs.

Source: Anda Asere (labsoflatvia.com). Photo: Shutterstock

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