A winner at the Spring 2012 round of the KAUST Seed Fund, the Envirola project is developing a portable device capable of performing on-site analysis of soil samples to detect harmful metals. Leading the project are King Abdullah University of Science and Technology scientists Dr. Rimantas Kodzius, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Electrical Engineering, along with co-founder Eng. Guoquing Zhao. They are currently working on the R&D and prototype testing phases at KAUST’s nanofabrication lab.

The Envirola project offers a viable alternative to the time-consuming method of sending soil samples to a laboratory. The main heavy metal pollutants are lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. Unlike the many organic pollutants, which will degrade to CO2 and water, heavy-metals tend to accumulate in the environment.

Serious environmental and human risks

Heavy-metal pollution can have effects on the central nervous system, kidneys, liver, skin, bones and teeth. These effects can potentially cause cancer. Industries such as coal mining, metal, chemical production, animal feed manufacturing and electronics all contribute to heavy-metal pollution.

Due to these negative impacts on human health, governments worldwide are regulating the maximum concentration of heavy metals in drinking water, industrial effluents, cosmetics, and other substances.

The benefits of having a portable device capable of analyzing the concentration of heavy-metals on the field include:

  • Minimizing the likelihood that the properties of the samples will change during transportation.
  • Eliminating the need to wait months for a laboratory to provide analysis results.

Describing their novel technology, Eng. Zhao explains that the genesis of the invention stems from their research into microfluidic chips. “There is no similar technology right now” he says. The combination of a sensor with the portable device makes this innovation one of a kind.

Dr. Kodzius emphasizes that, while usual methods can detect one metal at a time, this highly sensitive portable device can detect nineteen different types of metal.

Beyond the science

“The first step before manufacturing is to finalize the prototype and test with some local companies” says Dr. Rimantas Kodzius. As the Envirola project moves through the patent, manufacturing and commercialization phases, several resources are available to assist the researchers. “The Seed Fund supports us from the business side” add the KAUST scientists.

Team went through intensive one-one coaching program during Seed Fund shortlisting process. After wining the seed fund award the team attended a one-week intensive entrepreneurial bootcamp in Switzerland.

The Seed Fund is providing needed financial and business support for Envirola team till they finish their full-scale functional product and be ready for commercializing and starting their own company.

Envirola’s co-founders are utilizing KAUST facilities to develop their product. They committed to ensuring the most important work is undertaken internally at the University’s nanofabrication lab. Aiming to keep outsourcing to a minimum, Dr. Kodzius and Eng. Zhao wish to guarantee that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia benefits from this invention. While the plan is have the parts manufactured in China, the assembly and quality control is intended to remain in the Kingdom.

Recognizing the international reach of their invention, the KAUST researchers are aiming to focus on the U.S. market and other potential markets. “The strength of such technologies is that the market is not only locals but worldwide” says Dr. Kodzius.

Impact on industry

The target markets for the new device are both large industrial countries such as the United-States and China as well as developing nations. The problem of pollution manifests itself wherever there are mining corporations, textile and other industries. Potential customers are environmental protection agencies and consultancies involved in clean up operations on contaminated land or water. The hazardous heavy-metals detection instrument can also be useful for government agencies that do constant monitoring of water quality.

Mining corporations, in particular, have an interest in assessing pollution levels in their efforts to minimize their environmental footprint. As Dr. Rimantas Kodzius points out, China has started to invest heavily, at the tune of billions of dollars, to tackle the pollution of rivers and lakes problem.

Many countries have signed treaties to monitor and reduce heavy metal pollution. But heavy metals detection costs can be prohibitive and time-consuming. Since present hand-held devices technology is still imperfect, current analysis is performed in labs. The Envirola project, using the patented sensing chip technology on a lightweight portable device, offers a viable and cost-effective solution.