Lead-sensing technology partnership awarded ‘outstanding’ status

Paul Carrington, managing director of Aquacheck Engineering

A three-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) for a hand-held device to detect lead in drinking water has been awarded the highest grade possible by Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency. 

The partnership, between Manchester Metropolitan University and Aquacheck Engineering, which began in January 2019, has been independently evaluated and achieved an ‘outstanding’ grading by the agency. This corresponds to the team having over-delivered on the original objectives of the project.

The partners sought to develop an inexpensive rapid-sensing device for evaluating the concentration of lead in drinking water. This has led to an easy-to-use handheld device with a high level of accuracy and low-level detection limits.

Lead in drinking water can impact human health, especially in young children, where low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the nervous system and learning disabilities. The presence of lead is mostly due to legacy use of the metal in plumbing and distribution systems, and almost a quarter of the 25 million domestic properties in England and Wales, UK is estimated to have some lead in the supply network.

The cost of wholesale replacement of those pipes is calculated at around £7bn, and the risk of exposure to lead through drinking water is a challenge for the rest of the world too. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are between six and 10 million lead service lines in use across the country. 

The main objective of the partnership between Aquacheck and Manchester Metropolitan University was to develop a next generation screen-printed sensor device to quantify lead presence in tap water in domestic properties. The research combined electrochemistry, chemistry, advanced manufacture and internet of things research, which had not been previously applied to a handheld water sensing solution.

Professor Craig Banks, head of research and knowledge exchange in the faculty of science and engineering at Manchester Metropolitan University, said, “Working with Aquacheck Engineering [is] to realise a difference in the water industry that is grounded within our fundamental electrochemical research.”

The new device is designed for use by contractors, builders and water companies, and can help water service providers meet the new EU standard on lead in tap water of 5 parts per billion (ppb) by 2030.

Paul Carrington, managing director of Aquacheck Engineering, said, “Access to the laboratory facilities and expertise at the university, combined with our own manufacturing plant and experience working with water utilities has vastly expanded what has been possible to produce. This disposable handheld sensor for lead detection is a leap from current services and technologies, which require expensive and complex laboratory analysis.”