The Environmental Sample Processor.
looks a lot like a garbage can-–but it’s actually a fully functioning
laboratory, thrown overboard, to analyze water samples in the open
ocean. One day, a machine like it might tell us whether a beach is safe
for swimming or water is clean enough to drink. The so-called “Lab in a
Can” is nicknamed ESP.
ESP is the Environmental Sample Processor. It is an instrument that
collects water, allows you to extract particles, and use molecular probe
technology to understand the presence of certain organisms and their
activities,” explains Chris Scholin, president and chief executive
officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).
support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), microbiologist
Scholin and his team at MBARI created the portable ESP to work on its
own so the researchers don’t have to travel back to the lab every time
they want to analyze samples they collect at sea. Using onboard robotics
and half-dollar size reaction chambers–called pucks–ESP can do tests
ranging from detecting microbes and toxins to basic DNA analysis.
have intake valves. We draw in seawater with a syringe and create a
vacuum to basically pull the seawater through a filter that collects a
particular size of particles,” explains marine biologist Christina
Preston, pointing to the different parts that make up ESP. “We have a
manipulator arm and a carousel that basically drives pucks in different
places in order for us to complete our tasks.”
ESP has enough battery power to last roughly 30 to 45 days,” says Jim
Birch, director of the Sensors Underwater Research of the Future (SURF)
Center at MBARI. “Our goal is to have something that can go out for six
The Environmental Sample Processor can autonomously conduct testing experiments on the seafloor.
say an ESP network might one day crisscross our oceans, monitoring for
problems such as oil spills. ESPs might also be used on farms to detect
microorganisms like salmonella in the water that’s used to hose down
it be great if we could detect out in the field before it gets into the
packaging plant and onto people’s table? We want to provide that early
warning system,” notes Chris Melançon, founder and CEO of Spyglass, the
exclusive commercial partner of MBARI for the ESP.
Nation” caught up with Melançon as he was introducing ESP to fish
farmer Chris Newman, creator and president of Santa Cruz Aquaponics.
Newman raises both watercress and carp in a closed loop water system to
reduce the farm’s impact on the environment. Water is pumped from fish
tanks to watercress beds located above the fish tanks. The water is
filtered and cleaned by bacteria in the rocks and watercress roots, and
then pumped back into the fish tanks.
people who do aquaculture have to test water every day,” says Newman.
He is testing ESP to see if it accurately detects bacteria.
quality testing takes an immense amount of time,” he explains. “If you
get it wrong, a whole bunch of fish can die on you. If you have
something like ESP that gives you a database that comes up on a computer
screen where you can just look at what your water quality is without
having to go out and test, it’s revolutionary!”
the kind of device that could be in a water distribution center, in
reservoirs, or it could be on beaches or in the back of a van driving
around for water quality assessment,” says Scholin.
Scholin’s work is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).
ARRA funding has been instrumental in helping to transfer ESP
technology from MBARI to other researchers, not-for-profit organizations
and government agencies,” says Scholin. “It was the catalyst that made
it possible to commercially manufacture a suite of ESPs. That first step
has in turn spawned a new industry that aims to merge the fields of
environmental monitoring with biomedical diagnostics. Nothing like this
has ever been attempted before on any appreciable scale.”
Scholin’s team is working to pair ESP with an autonomous underwater
vehicle (AUV), so the instrument can go mobile. You might call it “Lab
in a Can” 2.0.
The research in this episode was funded by NSF through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.