News | Feb 19, 2019

The Army enlisted fish as water pollution scouts, a tech startup is deploying them to public water utilities

Water safety ensured with every breath

Frederick, Maryland – U.S. Army researchers at Fort Detrick invented an aquarium with special radios to listen to bluegill’s reaction to water pollution in real-time; a tech startup in Maryland heard opportunity knocking.

On Monday, Blue Sources CEO Terry Collins said public and non-profit water utilities, private customers, and military bases could now have their water monitored 24/7 by a team of bluegills.

“The bluegills act like canaries in a coal mine,” Collins said.

The small freshwater fish is a common catch in ponds and lakes across North America. Scientists discovered that fish produce a measurable electric field with every breath and that the field changes in the presence of toxic chemicals. Bluegills are perfect for the job because they’re calm, allowing for good readings, and grow slowly, Collins said.

For customers that subscribe to their service, Blue Sources delivers, installs, and maintains an optional benchtop or wall-mounted device with eight separate chambers, each containing live bluegill swimming in a small flow of the monitored water.

“We’ve partnered with a local contract manufacturer and we’ve got systems ready to install now for our first customers,” Collins said.

The fish “breathe the water” while eight pairs of sensors listen for changes to their natural electric fields. When a pollutant is detected by the fish, their electric field changes and an alert is sent by phone or email. (Water safety specialists can also watch the sensor data on their computers in real time.)

While the fish sentinels can’t tell exactly what toxin is present, unlike any individual manmade sensor, a bluegill detects an unusually broad spectrum of contaminants, numbering in the thousands. Their reaction can automatically trigger a water sample collection for analysis by mass spectrometry lab.

“An alarm doesn’t mean you need to shut off the water supply, but it lets you know there is something happening that needs to be reviewed,” Collins said. “The Army tested the bluegills with a long list of pollutants like copper, arsenic, and strychnine. Mother Nature spent 10 million years creating this sensor and there’s never been a false positive in the field.”

bluegill fish as water quality biomonitor

As the bluegill gills ventilate, their muscles generate an electric field signal similar to sinus rhythm on an electrocardiogram. When the bluegill breathes contaminated water, the signal pattern changes. (Scott Harden/Wikimedia)

The live fish are replaced by a Blue Sources technician every two weeks. The system’s neural network then tailors its analysis to the new fish, and readings from an attached sonde that measures water temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity–a step that prevents false positives.

The Army filed a patent application on an early version of the system 1997. But it wasn’t until 2014 that Collins discovered the technology at a technology transfer event. The next year, he signed a patent license agreement with U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research, where the research team worked, which transferred the Army’s intellectual property rights to Blue Sources.

Under federal law, businesses and entrepreneurs can transform government research into new products and services. And that’s what Collins did, along with his partners, David Barr, and PJ Bellomo.

TechLink, which specializes in transferring Department of Defense inventions to industry, helped Blue Sources navigate the patent license application and draft a commercialization plan. The agreement contained undisclosed financial terms, that is a license fee and royalties on sales, paid by Blue Sources to the Army.

It’s notable that the license resulted in a new service available to civilian customers and is transitioning back to several military bases, said Brett Cusker, TechLink’s executive director.

“Clean, safe water is essential for both military installations and public water authorities, and using fish biomonitors is efficient and cost-effective,” Cusker said. “Blue Sources saw the opportunity and worked hard to take it to market. They’ve been a great transition partner for the Army.”