Combating Contamination

Professor studies ways to mitigate water hazards in dams, reservoirs, aqueducts

April 2, 2007

By Russ Hudson

The water infrastructure in the United States consists of more than 76,000 dams and reservoirs, thousands of miles of pipes and aqueducts, 168,000 drinking-water facilities and about 16,000 publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities.

If a harmful chemical were to be introduced into the pipes in one of those water systems, accidentally or deliberately, the flow would need to be shut down before the contaminated water reached consumers.

Detecting the contaminant and shutting down the system in time is the goal of the research project, Water Hazard Mitigation, being worked on for the last two years by Prasada Rao, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. The three-year project, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency at $196,000, was launched to enhance hometown security efforts, a component of Homeland Security.

“We have the technology now to detect small amounts of harmful contaminants in the water,” Rao said, “but, typically, we have to send samples to a lab and it can take anywhere from hours to a week or so for results. We are focusing on developing tools that can detect the dangerous chemicals within seconds, and at very small concentrations.

What we want are devices that can attach to pipes that will detect the harmful substances in seconds and shut down the pipe immediately.”

When research started, Rao said, the chemicals being studied were in the several parts per million. At this point, he said, they are detecting the substances at parts per billion “and we want to detect them at parts per trillion, or at least at a very few parts per billion.”

Algorithms developed by Rao and senior electrical engineering student Owen Cupp are detecting the chemicals they are using for the research — arsenic, cyanide, benzene, and some common insecticides and herbicides — more quickly and in smaller concentrations and screening out “background noise” from chemicals such as chlorine and sodium, which are always in water treated for drinking.

“We want to make certain there are no false alarms,” Rao explained.
The goal, he said, is that once the filtering algorithms have been further developed and refined, they can be altered appropriately for any substance from which the water should be guarded.

At this point, the research is being conducted only at Cal State Fullerton, but, Rao said, “at some point we will be looking for collaborators, especially those who have access to needed equipment.”

Back to Top