MoboSens team creates award-winning mobile phone water sensor
ECE Assistant Professor Gang Logan Liu and his research team of graduate and undergraduate students–Manas Ranjan Gartia, Xinhao Wang, Te-Wei Chang, Jing “Jimmy” Jiang, Caleb Qian, Will Wang, and Tristan Wietsma–have developed MoboSens, a low-cost, smartphone-based sensor that allows users to test water quality. The sensor specifically detects nitrate concentration.
MoboSens, a three-component tool that incorporates a nanoelectronic sensor, smartphone, and cloud software technology, will expand to measure nitrate, heavy metal, carcinogen, and bacteria in water. The nanotechnology-enabled platform encourages everyone to become “citizen scientists,” using the smartphone-compatible sensor to collect, post, and share data regarding stream water quality and drinking water safety on social media platforms, adding to the collective knowledge of an area’s water quality.
“We not only want to allow everybody to own the sensor and use their smartphone for detecting water quality in their local environment, but also we want to create something called ‘crowdsensing.’ It’s very similar to crowdsourcing – the idea that everybody can contribute information into a public cloud website,” Liu said.
The MoboSens team received second place out of more than 400 participant teams in the Vodafone Wireless Innovation Project competition, a competition that identifies and funds innovative wireless-related technologies that address critical social issues around the world. The team will receive a $200,000 research grant to fund continuing work on the project.
“Our goal is very consistent with the goal of the competition,” Liu said. “We try to deliver the MoboSens technology to everybody’s hands–ordinary people’s hands–to empower them with new capability to help protect our environment and their own well-being, so everyone can use their mobile phone to quantitatively measure environments with precise geospatial and temporal information and by sharing the sensing information on public websites let more people globally discover environmental pollutions, especially invisible ones, around their residential areas.”
The MoboSens sensor, integrated with a micro-and nanofabricated chip and associated circuit board, is a small device coupled to a smartphone. The MoboSens sensor connects to the smartphone’s audio jack and thus allows almost any kind of cell phone to measure and collect the sensing data using a cross-platform app. The phone app also sends the data to a cloud computing platform which allows MoboSens users and other individuals to view environmental information in actual time on Google or Bing maps.
The team collaborated with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) to analyze the data on the cloud computing platform. The cloud platform analyzes the environmental sensing data stream and shares the information to a web mapping service.
Tristan Wietsma, a PhD student at the Illinois Informatics Institute working in environmental informatics, has worked to develop the MoboSens software vision, and has also worked to develop a marketing strategy to make the sensor more responsive to current trends in agricultural and environmental data analysis.
“I think the MoboSens platform is a great solution for water quality monitoring,” Wietsma said. "Nitrate, our proof-of-concept, is a significant environmental issue both here in the US and abroad. The platform enables anyone with a smartphone to collect high-quality data with the potential to drive more effective regulatory frameworks and sustainability. When expanded for heavy metals and bacteria, I think MoboSens can help improve human health.”
Manas Ranjan Gartia, a PhD student in nuclear, plasma, and radiological engineering, worked on the development of the microelectrochemical sensing chip for the sensor.
Gartia explained that available conventional bench-top chemical analysis techniques are unsuitable for large scale field deployment due to their massive instrumentation, bulky features, complex measurement procedures, and cost.
“It is unlikely that normal citizens will buy these instruments to perform water testing at home,” Gartia said. “Due to simplicity, sufficient sensitivity, small footprint, and cost effectiveness, proposed microelectrochemical-based methods for detection is a viable option for sensor networks as well as integrating to smartphone platforms. Since smartphones are now an integral part of our life, it is quite natural that a sensor platform connectable and operable by smartphones will be quite helpful and successful.”
Liu and the MoboSens team were recognized at the Vodafone Wireless Innovation Project awards ceremony and Global Philanthropy Forum in Silicon Valley on April 16. They plan to continue their research and expand the sensor’s capabilities.
Liu is affiliated with the Department of Bioengineering, Beckman Institute, and Micro and Nanotechnology Lab.