Oct 14, 2016 | By Alec

We here in developed countries take way too much for granted, but clean water must surely be top of the list. For the simple reality is that the billion people at the bottom of the world’s population pyramid can’t even trust the water they’re forced to drink. But a low-cost 3D printed solution is on its way. Called WaterScope, it provides a quick and low cost method for checking on-site if water is safe to drink, or absolutely teeming with harmful bacteria. But the same 3D printed microscopes can be used for countless applications, and are available now.

This fantastic tool was developed back in 2015 by a group of academics from Cambridge University, and they had a very clear-cut goal: to empower the bottom billion of the world and give them clean water. The reason for this is that drinking water is a huge killer in the developing world, with an estimated 2.2 million people dying from waterborne bacterial pathogens every year. Aside from proper filtration methods, these people are in desperate need of water testing kits – but current systems are woefully inadequate. In fact, they require power, scientific training, costly equipment and more than 24 hours to work.

WaterScope seeks to change that, and will bring testing kits to the locals who need just one to two hours to test the water. “We're in a unique position to reach that goal because the team is comprised of biologists, physicists, material scientists and others, each of whom contributes essential skills and knowledge to the project,” they say.

What they came up with is impressive. The WaterScope, in a nutshell, enables on-site testing for deadly pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria, Legionella and pathogenic E. coli 0157, without any technical training being necessary. What’s more, the process takes just up to two hours. “The method consists of concentrating the bacteria from a water sample, imaging their growth during incubation and sending the results to a server along with GPS coordinates,” the researchers explain. “The result is that the communities where the water is tested know immediately if there is a problem with their water supply and, as more and more samples are tested, a 'heat map' of water quality can be generated.”

Of course this kit doesn’t actually make the water safe to drink, as it only gives locals an idea of how safe their drinking supply actually is. Initial filtration does take place, but only to concentrate the bacteria in the water. These are subsequently transferred to a selection medium, incubated for a brief period of time and studied through the microscope’s imaging technology (found on a Raspberry Pi). The results follow within that same 2 hour timeframe, and are automatically uploaded together with those GPS coordinates. “Add a Raspberry Pi camera module and the microscope comes into its own,” they say.

Key in this process is the WaterScope itself, featuring several 3D printed components, a few screws and a lens. The parts can be 3D printed at home, or ordered through WaterScope for just €55 (approximately $60 USD). But 3D printing does more than just keep costs down. “Significantly smaller, lighter, and cheaper than today’s testing kits, it will allow more sites to be monitored more frequently and more easily. Once fully developed, it will be the fastest bacterial test kit available,” they say.

Of course 3D printing doesn’t make this kit look very professional, but the Cambridge team warns critics that they should not be fooled by its appearance. Exactly because it’s made from flexible plastic, the WaterScope’s motion is completely free from friction and vibration, helping it achieve a sub-micron precision and a range of 8mm. “And because it can be connected to a Raspberry Pi, you can see pin-sharp detail on a smartphone, tablet or monitor, rather than the limited view through a traditional microscope,” they add.

While the project is already released as an open source tool under the CERN Open Hardware License, the Cambridge team is currently working to improve their image processing techniques to improve sample analysis capabilities. Once successful, they are hoping to bring their WaterScope to locations all around the world and help the thousands of children that die from waterborne diseases every day.

But of course any biotech startup can benefit from the WaterScope, and they are thus also making it available as widely as possible. If you’re interested, you can find an assembly kit on the WaterScope website here.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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