Working in partnership with the National Oceanography Centre Southampton (NOCS), our researchers have developed a new generation of tools to help marine scientists understand our oceans - tiny sensors that use 'lab-on-a-chip' technology.
The oceans are a vital resource for life on Earth. They cover two-thirds of our planet, are home to an estimated 80 per cent of all species and are inextricably linked to global climate and weather systems. The miniature sensors are helping scientists to capture vital information about the chemistry of this complex and delicately balanced habitat.
The lab-on-a-chip devices can rapidly perform chemical, analytical and diagnostic operations that have traditionally been carried out in laboratories. Two kinds of sensors have been developed. The CT-DO sensor measures salinity and the amount of oxygen that is dissolved in the water. It can also take high-precision temperature measurements to within one thousandth of a degree centigrade.
The other type of sensor is designed to detect chemicals, including nutrients and pollutants, at the ultra-low concentrations found in the ocean. The technology is being developed as a low-cost method of collecting data even in the harshest environments, opening up new possibilities for marine research.
The innovation is the result of a collaboration between Professor Hywel Morgan of Electronics and Computer Science and Dr Matt Mowlem of NOCS, a UK centre for world-class research, technology development and training in marine science.
Already proven to work in deep-sea conditions, the CT-DO sensors were recently used by NOCS to gather data in a different environment - they were attached to the hull of a rowing boat being rowed across the Indian Ocean as part of the Team Indian Ocean 3100 challenge.
This was an exciting opportunity because of the distance covered and course taken by the rowing crew. Although similar sensors have been used in the past, tests have usually been carried out using larger boats or research vessels, limiting their use either in terms of time or geographical location.
The sensors have also been used on a research cruise in the Atlantic to provide information to validate satellite data. NOCS researchers are even hoping to use television presenter and wildlife campaigner Ben Fogle as a human research vessel - he will be wearing the tiny CT-DO sensors during his planned Atlantic swimming challenge.
The CT-DO sensors are now being developed for commercial use, and the chemistry sensors also have huge potential for pollution detection in lakes and rivers as well as water treatment, drinking water and environmental monitoring.