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Developing Chemical Sensors for Environmental Citizen Science

Energy and Environment Institute

Tuesday, January 05, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Runoffs from industry, agriculture and urban settings pollute our water leading to major pressures on the health of humans and ecological systems. It is thus vital to monitor water quality regularly and with robust methods. Traditional monitoring tends to rely on sending an expert in the field to take samples, which only gives sporadic information. As a result, we only a have a limited understanding of the dynamics of pollutants in the environment. It is thus challenging to achieve cost-effective and targeted environmental management. We have an urgent need for gathering more data at low-cost. We need to go beyond occasional measurement in a small number of locations. What is needed is chemical sensing of pollutants at frequent timepoints and in many locations enabling better quantification of trends and pressures of pollutants in the environment. It will underpin predictive modelling and provide the foundation for robust and cost-effective management of the aquatic environment.


We want to achieve frequent sensing of our waters by developing simple-to-use and low-cost chemical sensor devices which can then be operated by members of the public allowing us to gather chemical data through Citizen Science. The readouts from our devices will be captured through a phone camera and uploaded through an app. From this data, we can build a picture of a larger area and more time points – impossible to achieve by sending expert scientists into the field in isolated locations at isolated time points. We have previously developed paper-based analytical devices (PADs) for colour readout of nutrients in freshwater at ppm level. The user simply dips the PAD into a water sample. The liquid then wicks up inside and interacts with our pre-loaded substrates. These substrates change colour when they react with the analyte of interest. The user then takes a photograph and uploads it. Such paper devices are cheap to manufacture and lightweight and can thus be distributed easily and can be easily disposed.

Scope of PhD project:

In this project, we want to access pharmaceuticals accumulating in the environment. We will design and test an environmental sensor system for both pre-concentration and readout of pollutants in our water systems. It is now well established that many pharmaceuticals are present in the environment at ppb levels. We will focus on compounds that are frequently detected, including antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. Colour readout with substrates embedded in the paper devices works well in the ppm to high ppb range. To assess analytes at lower concentrations for on-site measurement, we will develop simple-to-use push filters that can interface with the PADs. We will trial filter materials with different surface functionalisation and porosities and try different strategies to interface the filter with the captured pollutant to the readout PAD. To ensure our devices and workflows are fit for citizen-led sampling, we will liaise with local volunteer groups, such as the Canal and Rivers Trust, and international partners in Africa and Southeast Asia enabling the student to develop extensive skills in science communication with a range of cultural groups. Our obtained data will enable a deeper understanding of the source, transport, and persistence of environmental contaminants.

See the Panorama website ( for more information on the Project, the Supervisory Team, training and the working environment.

Student Profile

The key requisite is an enthusiasm to immerse yourself into a multidisciplinary research environment. We bring together environmental sciences with chemistry and science communication. The position will suit a student with a degree in chemistry, biochemistry, environmental sciences or a related discipline and you should normally have, or expect to obtain, at least a 2:1 Honours degree (or international equivalent (

Funding Notes

This project is part of the NERC Panorama Doctoral Training Programme. Appointed candidates will be fully funded for 3.5 years including full tuition fees, and stipend at the UKRI rate plus a training grant.

The application deadline is Tuesday 5th January 2021, and interviews will take place in late February.

Please see the Panorama website (View Website) for full information on funding and how to apply.

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