Development of low cost, high accuracy, freshwater analytical sensors to enable “Citizen Science” monitoring of UK river systems.


   School of Life Sciences

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  Prof J Macpherson  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Project Highlights:

  • Development of new, low-cost, but improved accuracy sensors for use by the general public for citizen science monitoring of river water health in the UK.
  • The ability to take your sensor technology from the laboratory into the field.
  • Working in a friendly and cooperative research group at a world leading institution, with support from The Rivers Trust and Citizen Science volunteers.

Overview: Citizen science is any activity that involves the public in scientific research. One area where citizen science projects have demonstrated their value is in sampling the water quality of natural freshwater rivers. Such river monitoring aids in supplementing the limited and often sporadic monitoring performed by government bodies such as the Environment Agency (EA). Citizen science sampling was recently in the news due to Citizen Science data collected from the River Wye proving that run-off from intensive poultry farms was leading to significant phosphate pollution.1 Key parameters of interest for river health monitoring include temperature, dissolved oxygen (DO), total dissolved solids (TDS, conductivity), pH, phosphate, ammonia, nitrate, and turbidity (suspended sediment).2 Currently citizen science sensors, as they tend to be provided to the general public for free by environmental non-government organisations (Rivers Trusts or Wildlife Trusts), need to be low-cost. However, low cost here often means compromises on range, accuracy, limit of detection and ease of use (available test methods are typically developed for use in aquariums not river systems). In contrast, EA sampling involves high-cost analytical laboratory equipment, which is inaccessible to citizen science samplers. The aim of this project would be to bridge the gap and develop low-cost, easy to use instrumentation, which provides improved accuracy and traceability compared to the existing citizen science sensors. Data collected will also feed into the “Catchment Systems Thinking Co-operative (CaSTCo) project3 - a £7.1M project funded by OFWAT Innovation Fund – whose aim is to develop a national standard framework for catchment monitoring. We will aim to focus on 4 parameters during the PhD, DO, pH, TDS (conductivity) and phosphates; if time is available, we will expand the range. The Macpherson group is an internationally recognised, friendly, and co-operative electrochemistry research group at the University of Warwick.4 If you were to undertake a project with us, you would have the benefit of the day-to-day supervision of Dr Joshua Tully (Research Fellow) and the extensive experience of Prof. Julie Macpherson. The project would also be heavily involved with the Rivers Trust (see below) who lead CaSTCo.3

Methodology: We wish to explore a number of different analytical approaches to producing the low-cost analytical sensors. These will include electrochemical measurements (where we record a characteristic potential / current), colourimetry (measure solution absorbance), and/or luminescence (measure light emission from the solution). We will couple these methods with low-cost fabrication methodologies, which also encourage maximum design flexibility, for example 3D-Printing and Injection Moulding. An interested researcher could also choose to develop prototype electronics based on Arduino or other microcontrollers. The aim will be to produce functional prototype sensors, which will both be tested by the PhD student and volunteers in the field (access to different river systems will be possible via the Rivers Trust). Note, no prior experience with 3D printing or Arduino electronics is necessary. We believe a student who is interested in sensor development and testing in the field would get the most out of this project.

Training and skills: Students will receive training in the application/theory of analytical measurement techniques, including (i) electrochemical (ii) colorimetric and (iii) luminescence methods. Training will also be given in (i) 3D printing (ii) open-source electronic platforms and (iii) data analysis and handling. The Rivers Trust will offer training in (i) freshwater environmental sampling; (ii) commercially available monitoring instrumentation; (iii) hands-on sessions highlighting the pros and cons of different measurement approaches. 

Further information on partners and collaboration: The Rivers Trust is the umbrella organisation for 60+ member River Trusts across Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Local Trusts drive positive change for rivers, reducing pollution, building climate resilience and helping nature’s recovery. The Rivers Trust employs around 60 staff, comprising national experts in data analysis, freshwater ecosystems, monitoring technologies, water policy and governance, community engagement, land use impacts, nature-based solutions and much more. Supported by members of The Rivers Trust Technical Team, the successful applicant will have access to experts across the Rivers Trust movement including those at local Trusts (Severn Rivers Trust and Trent Rivers Trust).

Possible timeline:

Year 1: Development of Sensors for Analytes 1 & 2 and laboratory testing of these.

Year 2: Field Testing of Sensors 1 & 2. Laboratory Development of Sensors 3 & 4.

Year 3: Field Testing of Sensors 3 & 4. Engagement in Citizen Science Projects with the sensors developed.


Biological Sciences (4) Chemistry (6) Environmental Sciences (13)

Funding Notes

Home (UK) students who have been ordinarily resident in the UK for at least three years can apply for full awards covering tuition fees and annual stipend for living costs.
International students (including EU Students) can apply for jointly funded awards covering tuition fees in full and annual stipend for living costs.
Successful International candidates would need to cover all other costs themselves including Health Surcharge, visa and flights.