Bobby Magill (BobbyMagill null@null coloradoan NULL.com). Fort Collins Coloradoan, May 11, 2010.

OptiEnz would allow first responders to test contaminants on-scene

If those first on the scene at last summer’s two Poudre River asphalt tanker spills could have immediately tested contamination in the water to find out how badly the river was polluted, Fort Collins Utilities might have had a better idea of how the spills polluted the water even faster than they did.

“One of the first things after securing the scene, you have to ascertain what you’re dealing with,” said Kevin Gertig, Fort Collins water resources manager.

Fort Collins Utilities and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials had to send water samples to a lab and wait to find out what was in the water downstream of the asphalt tanker spills.

New technology being developed at CSU might be able to help in similar situations by allowing first responders and utilities to test contaminants in water in real time without having to take a water sample to a lab.

Colorado State University chemical and biological engineering professor Ken Reardon, working with CSU’s renewable energy arm Cenergy, has formed OptiEnz LLC, which will develop biosensors that will test water quality in the field.

OptiEnz sensors could test water quality at the intake for a water-treatment facility, in a river after a spill or even in water near an oil and gas drilling site, which could be contaminated with dangerous amounts of benzene, Reardon said.

His technology uses “optoelectronics” as well as biology to sense contamination in water.

Two layers consisting of a fluorescent chemical and enzymes are applied to the tip of an optical fiber. When the tip contacts contaminated water, the enzymes cause the brightness of the fluorescent chemical to change. Reardon’s team has tested a sensor specifically designed to detect benzene.

“If I suspect that benzene might be in the water, this will tell me how much and where,” he said.

OptiEnz is working with several government and private firms to set up field tests for the sensors. The company expects the sensors to be used for homeland security, groundwater testing, environmental cleanup sites and food and beverage testing.

“We’re trying to bring product to market starting in a few months,” Reardon said. “Yes, we do think this is revolutionary.”

Revolutionary, he said, partly because the OptiEnz technology can report the concentration of contaminants continuously in the place the contamination exists.

Gertig said Monday he hadn’t heard of Reardon’s technology but said he suspects it could be very beneficial to water managers.

But, he said, had such a tool been available last summer when the two tanker trucks dumped asphalt into the Poudre, the city would still have taken water samples to a lab for verification.

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