U-M Creates Lead Sensor for Home, City Water Lines


Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have announced a new electronic lead sensor, potentially costing $20, that would monitor home and city water quality, alerting residents and officials to the presence of lead within nine days. Following the Flint water crisis, researchers are currently seeking partners to bring the technology to market.

Additionally, standard water sample tests require users to run their water for several minutes, which can miss lead that leaches into the water from the home’s own pipes.

Mark Burns, the T.C. Chang Professor of Chemical Engineering, and his colleagues, worked to develop an inexpensive sensor that could be replaced at key points in city water systems and the taps in homes.

“I hope it will have some impact because it is scary to think about having lead in your water,” says Burns. “There could be an app that would monitor all the taps, and it could just send you an email message when it detected an event.”

The technology works to separate lead from all other metals that might be present in water, most of them only hazardous in very high doses.

“Since iron is the most common metal in water and is basically harmless (besides having a bad odor), we see it as interfering with our sensor,” adds Wen-Chi Lin, a recent Ph.D. graduate in chemical engineering.

Lin designed an updated sensor that could differentiate between lead and other metals like iron, testing them in a variety of environments including simulated tap water and actual tap water. As lead builds up on the positive electrode, it eventually reaches the neutral electrode, closing the circuit and generating a voltage. Above a one-volt signal, the system registers a hit.

Lin believes that with optimization, the device could become better at attracting lead, but not copper.

The study was funded entirely through U-M, including the Barbour Scholarship, Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship, and T.C. Chang Endowed Professorship. The findings were recently published in Analytical Chemistry and the abstract can be read here.