Development of low-cost diagnostic tools assessing mercury contamination


Development of low-cost diagnostic tools assessing mercury contamination

Section: All

Location : Cali, rural Colombia

Duration : 2-6 months

Availability : Applications closed

Hosting structure: Universidad del Valle

Project overview

In Colombia, water availability per capita is relatively high (50,000 m3/inhabitant/year), but unequal distribution and contamination are major problems in rural settings (Rojas et al, 2013). One of the largest practices that threaten natural ecosystems in the Cauca river basin is the use of mercury for artisanal gold mining (WHO, 2016). Even though mercury usage for industrial purposes is now illegal in Colombia, the governmental institutions lack capacity to inforce regulations; particularly in the remote rural areas where most artisanal gold mines are located. To address this problem, we propose the development of community-based environmental protection programs. The primary outcome of the strategy is to change the corrective actions from focusing on regulation enforcement to a focus on education and communication strategies (Sánchez & Ortolano, 2005). The first milestone towards our goal is to implement a pilot program on participatory action research (PAR) for assisting vulnerable rural communities in the management and supply of water (Lammerink, 1998). PAR is a cost-efficient, sustainable platform that can be appropriated by local communities. The engagement of youth through PAR has proven successful in improving water quality and land management in the Colombian Andes (Roa & Brown 2009).

For implementing PAR in water safety monitoring, in-situ diagnostic tools are highly desirable. Unlike most laboratory standard techniques, these tools should be portable, disposable, user friendly, and low-cost. In this particular application, precision of the tool is not as important as its ability to provide a rough estimation on the levels of mercury in the sampled water.

Methodology : We have identified microwave-assisted synthesis of carbon quantum dots (CQDs) as a promising technique for local production of mercury sensors. The general detection mechanism is based on fluorescence quenching of the CQDs by mercury.

The intern would work on the synthesis and characterization of different types of CQD-based sensors for mercury detection. Based on our preliminary data of relevant mercury levels for different water sources in the Northern Cauca region, as well as in the particular field conditions in which mercury sensing will be conducted, the student will tune the manufacturing method in order to develop a rapid diagnostics device for water safety assessment by rural communities in the Cauca region.

Expected outcomes: The main outcome will be empowerment of rural communities through training and education on the implementation of locally-fabricated low-cost technologies for assessing environmental contamination. We will develop a participatory monitoring program that will (i) help the communities to understand environmental pollution in order to make informed decisions about the use of natural resources on the basis of analytical data; will (ii) contribute to enhance community capacity to demand environmental protection, mitigation and reparation from governmental institutions; and (iii) produce methods and technology available for all of the public in order to connect with different databases, enforcing environmental surveillance from the public sphere to drive policy.

Required skills: Laboratory skills ware preferred. Strong capacity of adaptation to new teams and conditions. Auntonomy and responsabiliy is expected. Programming and electronics skills are welcome.

Contact : Julien Wist <>





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