Oct 15, 2015 | By Benedict

With the ultimate aim of reducing harmful nitrates in Midwestern waterways, researchers from the University of Iowa have recruited an unlikely group of employees: freshwater mussels, sporting 3D printed electronic backpacks.

Although the project is still in its infancy, researchers are hopeful that attaching tiny 3D printed electronic backpacks to a large number of mussels will transform the creatures into living sensors, which will enable researchers to gauge water quality. The scientists believe that the collected data could facilitate the development of a new method for mitigating the harmful effects of nitrogen runoff, which is a significant problem in agricultural states.

A small number of mussels have already been collected, and the team are experimenting in the lab with prototype backpack models. They must ensure that the 3D printed devices in no way impede the mussels’ natural movement or behaviour, else the collected data will be useless. Whilst the battery life of each backpack will be approximately 1 year, the pocketbook clams being recruited for the project can live for over 50 years. The tiny backpack is made up of a magnetic sensor, which will detect if the mussel is open or closed, a microcontroller to manage the collected data, a clock, a radio/antenna to transmit data, a custom 3D printed housing for the electronics, and a battery with which to power everything.

The electronic backpack will be used to communicate a very particular kind of data, namely the measurements of a mussel’s gape. The ‘gape’ is the rhythmic opening and closing of the mussel's valve, and real-time communication of gape data will inform researchers if the mussels’ regular cycles are being disrupted due to a change in their environment.

If a suitable model can be built, a greater number of mussels will be recruited from the Iowa River to join the project. The researchers will glue the 3D printed backpacks to the clams’ shells, before releasing them back into the river. The backpacks, each equipped with a tiny spiral antenna, will then transmit data back to the servers on the UI campus.

The group of scientists are particularly interested in mussels because of their unique relationship with the nitrogen cycle. Mussels draw in river water and pump it through their bodies, filtering out nutrients. This filtration process means that mussels, in large enough numbers, can function as powerful water purifiers. Unfortunately, the mussel population of Iowa was drastically reduced in the early 1900s, an ecological disaster at least partially due to the Muscatine pearl button industry. Mussel shells, ever fashionable, were used to make pearl buttons, and Muscatine, a city in Iowa, was once considered the pearl button capital of the world.

The nitrate problem, which the researchers hope to solve, is linked in an important way to mussel population. Rivers and streams which make up the Mississippi River watershed unintentionally export excess nitrates from fertilisers to the Gulf of Mexico. These nitrates then settle in the Gulf, which results in algal blooms as large as 6,000 to 7,000 square miles. This huge quantity of algae serves to deplete oxygen in the water and cause "dead zones" which drastically reduce fish populations. Researchers hope that the 3D printed backpacks attached to the group of brave mussels will provide data, which can then be used to develop strategies to minimise Iowa's nitrate contribution.

Images from UI

“These organisms play a huge role in the nitrogen cycle, and the way they couple with how other organisms like bacteria function, it could be some of our engineering solutions for nitrogen-management issues in the future,” explained Craig Just, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the UI. The mussel project is a collaboration between Just, Professor of Electrical Engineering Anton Kruger, and Ruben Llamas, who holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the UI.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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