Pilot Program’s Initial Phase Will Help Communities in Lowell, Lawrence, Dracut and Andover

Prof. Kurup with his two students in the lab
Prof. Pradeep Kurup works with Ph.D. student Yigit Can Bozkurt, left, and senior student Christine O’Donnell on the “electronic tongue,” or E-Tongue, a handheld electrochemical sensor that can rapidly detect heavy metals, pesticides and PFAS in drinking water.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A community-based project to test and monitor the quality and safety of drinking water for thousands of Merrimack Valley residents has been awarded a research grant totaling nearly $2.5 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Led by Prof. Pradeep Kurup, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the four-year pilot project will engage people to become “citizen scientists” to help sample and test water. It will initially take place in the communities of Lowell, Lawrence, Dracut and Andover.

“Water is a basic human need, and this university established in the city of Lowell is here because of the water flowing in the Merrimack River, which supplies drinking water to over 600,000 people in the region,” says Chancellor Julie Chen.

“UMass Lowell is a public research university on the doorstep of achieving R1 status in a gateway city, and this NSF-funded project is a prime example of our faculty and students doing top-notch research, with application and impact and in partnership with the communities around us,” she says.

Sen. Ed Markey and U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, who were instrumental in helping secure NSF funding for the program, came to campus on Oct. 27 to officially kickoff the project.

“It will connect people with the information they need to fight for policy solutions and protect their health,” Markey said. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and this grant will help us measure and manage dangerous pollution in our water.”

Trahan, who grew up in Lowell, stressed the importance of a clean and safe Merrimack River.

Prof. Kurup with Rep. Trahan and Sen. Markey Image by Henry Marte
Kurup gives a demonstration of the E-Tongue to U.S. Rep Lori Trahan, in red, and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, center, during their campus visit on Oct. 27 at University Crossing. Looking on at left is state Rep. Vanna Howard, and at right is Lowell Mayor Sokhary Chau.
“There’s no question that the results of this project will help inform the decisions and the investments that we continue to make, to ensure residents along the Merrimack River have the drinking water that they need and a clean river that they can be proud of,” she said.

A Novel ‘Electronic Tongue’

The project builds on earlier research led by Kurup.

“Thanks to previous funding from the NSF and the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center, our research team has developed a simple, easy-to-use handheld electrochemical sensor — called an ‘electronic tongue,’ or E-Tongue — that can rapidly detect multiple toxins in drinking water on-site,” says Kurup.

These toxins include heavy metals like lead, arsenic and copper, as well as pesticides and even per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — the so-called “forever chemicals” that can last indefinitely in the body and in the environment.

“The E-Tongue is battery-powered and has a visual screen to instruct the user on how to test samples and read out the results,” Kurup notes. “It uses patented electrochemical sensors that can achieve detection limits specified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for safe drinking water.” 

The E-Tongues will be distributed to select households, schools and facilities around the Merrimack Valley to test their drinking water. Through a user-friendly app, the data collected will be automatically transmitted to a smart, cloud-based computing platform. There, machine-learning algorithms will then analyze and predict not only the type and concentration of a contaminant but also the extent of the contamination, and possibly even pinpoint its source. 

Group photo with NSF check Image by Henry Marte
This group shot of the project’s community leaders, partners and stakeholders include, on the front row from left, Chau, state Rep. Ed Kennedy, Markey, Trahan, UML Chancellor Julie Chen, Kurup, Howard and state Rep. Rady Mom.
Kurup says the information will enable researchers, regulatory agencies and municipalities to monitor the quality of drinking water supplies and, if needed, alert affected residents to take appropriate actions. Water utility managers can also use the data to fine-tune their wastewater treatment processes and improve or upgrade their water distribution infrastructure. 

“This will have a profound effect in protecting and safeguarding public health and the environment,” Kurup says. “We believe our project is going to be sustainable, scalable and transferable to other communities in our region and can serve as a model for other countries around the world.”

“We’re excited to work with Prof. Kurup to improve water quality through this innovative sampling project,” says Steven Duchesne, executive director of the Lowell Regional Water Utility (LRWU).

According to Duchesne, the 135,000 residents and businesses in Lowell and the neighboring communities of Dracut, Tyngsboro, and Chelmsford use an average of 11 to 12 million gallons of water per day, or more than 4 billion gallons per year. “The project will be a good way for quick reference readings for different water-quality parameters,” he says.

Members of Kurup’s “transdisciplinary” project team include Profs. Benyuan Liu and Mohammad Alam (computer science) and Ramaswamy Nagarajan (plastics engineering) as co-principal investigators, as well as Robin Toof (Center for Community Research and Engagement), Xiaoqi Zhang (civil and environmental engineering), Yu Cao (computer science) and Jill Lohmeier (education) as senior personnel. Also a co-PI is Sociology Asst. Prof. Teresa Gonzales of Loyola University Chicago.

Aside from Markey and Trahan, other community partners and stakeholders include the LRWU, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the Merrimack River Watershed Council, YWCA Lowell, Groundwork Lawrence, Dracut Water Supply District, the Lawrence Water and Sewer Department, the town of Andover and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Corporate partners include Thermo Fisher Scientific in Waltham, Massachusetts, and Geoprobe Systems in Salina, Kansas.

“The Kansas Department of Health and Environment contacted me through my industry collaborator, Geoprobe Systems, because they had arsenic in groundwater and requested our E-Tongue for testing,” says Kurup. “They used our device, and they are now partners as we scale up and transfer our technology and community-based approach to other regions in the nation.”

What Was Once One of the Country’s Most Polluted Rivers 

Margaret Martonosi, the NSF assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, notes that historically, the Merrimack River has been “among the most polluted waterways in the nation, and despite improvements, sewage release continues to be a problem.”

Prof. Kurup's undergrad student working in the lab
O’Donnell uses an atomic absorption spectrometer in the lab to test water samples.
Trahan notes that it is not only sewage overflows that go into the Merrimack River. She says hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater and storm water have been “flowing into the river for decades, containing all sorts of contaminants, things like bacteria, oil, gasoline, heavy metals and PFAS.”

Martonosi says the UML project will help educate local residents about water quality and how to sample, test and mitigate issues. “It demonstrates the value of testing out there in the real life and working on problems that have the potential for lasting impact,” she says.

A Potential Game Changer

“The best part about this NSF-supported project is that it involves our students,” says Chen. “Undergraduate and graduate students all get to be part of learning how these types of team programs can really make a difference in the community if they work together.”

“Prof. Kurup’s project is so important for our society, because it will bring a sense of security, especially to underprivileged communities, with regard to access to safe, clean drinking water,” says Christine O’Donnell, a senior civil engineering major from Westford, Massachusetts, who will be using an atomic absorption spectrometer to test the water samples. “This EPA-approved method will help validate results from the handheld E-Tongue devices.”

Environmental engineering Ph.D. student Yigit Can Bozkurt says generally, heavy metals in drinking water can be tested in an off-site lab, but that is an expensive method and requires one to two weeks of waiting time.

“Through the E-Tongue technologies we have developed, people should be able to get results in a matter of minutes, and it will be affordable compared to standard methods,” says Bozkurt, who is originally from Turkey. He is using voltammetric techniques to detect the heavy metals, as well as applying his knowledge and training in environmental engineering, Geographic Information System, remote sensing, machine learning and development of mobile apps to help the project achieve its objectives.

“In addition to technical know-how, this project has taught me how to work with people from diverse backgrounds, as well as with government agencies and nonprofit organizations,” he says. “I’m able to acquire skills in communication, problem-solving and critical thinking, which will be useful when I look for postdoctoral research or faculty positions after my graduation.”

Ariel Shramko, an environmental engineering junior from Attleboro, Massachusetts, helped to conduct the initial heavy-metal testing in the lab, among other duties.

“Everyone deserves safe water,” she says. “Providing them an easy, cost-efficient and discrete way of determining whether their water is safe can be a game changer.”