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Ohio University professor develops life-saving technology with Cranfield University, Gates Foundation

Sensor has potential to reduce or even eliminate E.Coli-related deaths and illnesses


A small electrochemical sensor developed by an Ohio University distinguished professor has big potential to reduce – or even eliminate – the number of E.coli-related deaths and illnesses around the world.

Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Gerardine Botte, known for her “pee-to-power” research, created the sensor, which can measure E.coli in water and relay results in a matter of seconds, in collaboration with Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Ronan Carroll. It was tested in India this summer.

Botte said without interdisciplinary collaboration, the project wouldn’t have been possible.

“When we let go of silos, believe in innovation and work together, great things will happen,” she said. 

The power of waste

The project began after Botte presented the “pee-to-power” concept – in which electrolysis is used purify human and animal wastewater efficiently and cost-effectively – at an Electrochemical Society (ECS) meeting in 2014. The ECS and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation asked Botte to join a total of only 100 researchers at a brainstorming event where they were tasked with developing solutions to improve access to clean water and sanitation in developing countries.

She received $50,000 and six months to prove that “shocking” microorganisms in urine would produce clean water and hydrogen at a reasonably low rate of energy consumption. But Botte needed E.coli and a way to measure disinfection.

Cue Carroll, principal investigator in the Carroll Laboratory at OHIO, who agreed to grow and prepare non-pathogenic samples of E.Coli bacteria in his lab, and teach Botte and her team to measure disinfection.

Carroll, whose research focuses on exploring mechanisms that cause human disease, said the initial experiments weren’t successful but sparked a new idea.

“The bacteria wasn’t gone, but we noticed the electrolysis current profile showed interesting fluctuations when bacteria were present,” he said. “Based on the current fluctuations, Botte came up with the idea of developing a bacterial sensor rather than a way to kill bacteria.”

Botte and her team proposed to create an electrochemical microbial sensor (EMS) – a small device about the size of a pen – that can be inserted into water to measure microbe concentration instantaneously.

When they presented their results at an ECS conference in 2016, the Gates WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) transformative technology initiative invited her to the Foundation headquarters and gave her a week to write a proposal. 

Going global

Eventually, OHIO’s Center for Electrochemical Engineering Research (CEER), which Botte directs; Cranfield University; the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS); Three Birds Swan Consulting; and ERAM Scientific solutions joined forces.

The resulting sensor works with a cloud-based platform to monitor and measure the operational and environmental performance, enabling remote placement and monitoring of the device.

In August, Botte traveled to BITS in Goa, India, to test the sensors.

Power supply differences in the third-world country negatively affected the sensor’s electronic components, but Botte and her international teammates rebuilt the electronics on-site.

“We ran into some bumps, but we were able to take care of them,” she said. “We were able to successfully demonstrate that our sensor can show the presence of E.coli in water.”

Leon Williams, head of the Cranfield Centre for Competitive Creative Design (C4D) at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, said the technology has potential for a wide application, ranging from the food service industry to the medical field.

"Professor Gerri Botte and her team have worked extensively to develop a novel, low-cost, robust, rapid E.coli detector. This technology could be a breakthrough innovation for the WASH global communities of practice," he said.

The benefits

Chemical engineering Ph.D. students Behnaz Jafari, Almgir Mojibul, and Ashwin Ramanujam; biological sciences Ph.D. student Rebecca Keogh; former undergraduate chemical engineering students Samuel Luers, BSCHE ’17, and Bertrand Neyhouse, BSCHE ’18; Postdoctoral Research Associate Fei Lu, Ph.D. ’17; and CEER Lab Coordinator John Goettge rounded out the OHIO team. 

Neyhouse, who worked on the project for more than three years and is now pursuing a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the experience primed him for academic excellence at an elite institution.

“I learned a lot about every stage of the research process and developed independence in conducting my own research, and successful collaboration,” he said. “These combined experiences gave me the tools I needed to be a good candidate for graduate school at a highly competitive research institution.”

According to Botte, the possibilities for the sensor are endless – and all of them end in creating for good.

“The sensor is now being used in a developing country, and our research has a real impact on the society and people who really need this technology,” she said. “The beauty of it is that a piece of OHIO’s heart is out there helping to bring clean water into the world.”