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Detection and the Deep Blue Sea

Jul 2009
Caren B. Les,

New and emerging developments in marine sensor technologies were highlighted at a meeting in March at Dublin City University, which was attended by laboratory researchers and representatives of small- and medium-size enterprises. The crucial need for tools to monitor the ocean environment and make accurate and replicable measurements was emphasized. Sensor technology is expected to play a significant role in investigating the biological, ecological, evolutionary and biogeochemical aspects of the ocean. For example, instrumentation is needed to monitor climate change, to help restore good ecological status in coastal waters, and for rapid, sensitive and in situ detection of emerging pollutants, hydrocarbons, steroids/drugs, antifouling compounds, pesticides and harmful algal blooms.

The aim of the workshop, the third in the series of MarinERA A Posteriori Clustering Workshops, was to facilitate the exchange of information between European marine research funding organizations and research aid recipients, including those in smaller enterprises, in the field of marine sensor technologies research. The workshop report, MarinERA Publication No. 9 (April 2009), is titled New Developments in Marine Sensor Technologies: Opportunities and Challenges. MarinERA, a European Union Sixth Framework Programme ERA-NET, is a partnership of marine research funding organizations from 13 European countries, supported by the Marine Board – European Science Foundation.

Sensor development

Dermot Diamond, a professor at the National Centre for Sensor Research, Dublin City University, discussed the advantages of autonomous chemical/biomonitoring stations, including the lab-on-a-chip approach, for long-term monitoring in the marine environment. He discussed new developments in chemical analysers using microfluidics, direct sensing vs. reagent-based lab-on-a-chip technology, and the use of surrogate measurements based on stimulus-response and photoresponsive materials.

Dr. Chantal Compère, a researcher at the Sensor Research Laboratory, Ifremer – French Institute for Exploitation of the Sea, in Brest, France, addressed the need for new and improved chemical and biological in situ sensors for monitoring the ocean. She noted in the report that the need must be met for instrumentation that provides rapid, sensitive and selective in situ detection of health hazards, and that there are increased efforts to develop sensors capable of screening organic and inorganic molecules and biological species in seawater at high frequency.

The need for the marine science community to sample biogeochemical properties in four dimensions (three spatial dimensions plus time) was outlined in the report by Dr. Matt Mowlem, Sensor Development Group, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK. He described developments being pursued at the centre, including lab-on-a-chip technologies for in situ sensing, microfabricated cytometers for monitoring phytoplankton, and optical sensors for measuring dissolved gases.

Sensor systems on networked vehicles are described by João Borges de Sousa, a researcher at the Underwater Systems and Technologies Laboratory, University of Porto, Portugal. The report notes that technological developments in computing, navigation, control, composite materials and power systems have resulted in the design and deployment of the first generation of unmanned vehicle systems. Although networked vehicles have potential applications in oceanographic field studies, it is currently not possible to interoperate vehicles, sensors and communications networks from different vendors/institutions, according to the report.

Sensor platforms

Developments in the platforms that host the sensors were also a subject of interest at the workshop. Participants learned about airborne mounted sensors for the detection of oil pollution, and autonomous sensing devices that are deployed in situ on fixed data buoys and on sensors attached to mobile autonomous and remotely operated vehicles, gliders and vessels of opportunity.

Shown is one of the SmartBay ocean monitoring buoys in Galway Bay, Ireland. Courtesy of the Marine Institute, based in Rinville, Ireland.

Sensor developments such as the SmartBay Galway national research infrastructure project in Ireland were discussed. The project consists of a network of buoys, seafloor cables and other equipment that supports a variety of sensors, information systems, telemetry and other communications technologies to provide a basis for in situ real-time oceanographic monitoring.

The gap between research and commercialization

In a session titled “What Can Funding Organisations Do to Better Support Sensor Research?” the researchers emphasized the need for the development and retention of key expertise, and for mid- to long-term funding strategies as opposed to the stop-start approach to funding. Industry participants stressed the need to bridge the funding gap between the laboratory prototype and operational field equipment, and the need for publicly funded researchers to better understand the commercialization process.

The participants agreed that a critical need in their research and innovation funding profile is fostering cooperation between small- to medium-size enterprises and multinational corporations on scaled-up deployments of prototype instruments, devices and associated services, according to the report, which also noted that the existence of this gap is the main reason why so few research projects lead to real commercial products and demonstrable socioeconomic impact.

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