UT Biologist Helps Develop Chemical Warfare Defense

KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee biology professor has helped develop a new way to detect chemical warfare attacks against lakes and rivers that provide municipal water supplies.

Dr. Eli Greenbaum, who holds a joint appointment at UT and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has helped create the AquaSentinel process, which monitors the natural fluorescence of algae in river water.

“Our primary-source drinking water is quite vulnerable,” Greenbaum said. “For example, 100 percent of the water for the city of Oak Ridge is pumped out of the Clinch River, and virtually all of the drinking water for Knoxville comes from the Tennessee River. The pumping stations where the water is taken in are susceptible to chemical warfare attacks by terrorists.”

The AquaSentinel system works because fresh-water algae are sensitive to chemicals that terrorists could use to poison water supplies. Greenbaum said toxins like cyanide, pesticides, herbicides and nerve agents such as cholinesterase inhibitors can change the fluorescence of algae in predictable ways.

“We know that changes in algae fluorescence over time indicate how healthy they are,” Greenbaum said. “In other words, measuring algae fluorescence is similar to putting a thermometer in somebody’s mouth. If the thermometer reads 98.6 degrees, you can conclude the person doesn’t have a fever.”

Sensors can be placed in water pumping stations along a river to monitor the algae and transmit an alert if toxic chemicals are detected in the water, Greenbaum said.

“The advantage of this technology and where it distinguishes itself from other bio-sensor technology is that we don’t have to manufacture the bio-sensors used for the detection,” Greenbaum said. “They already are an integral part of the water that is being protected.

“Our work has shown that large classes of toxins that could potentially harm humans also harm the algae.”

Greenbaum said he worked with colleagues Miguel Rodriguez Jr. and Charlene Sanders to develop “an early warning system, a broad-spectrum sensor, that can be used not as a replacement for high-end water quality analysis, but essentially to develop a 24-hour-per-day, 7-day-per-week technology” that operates unattended.

The project has proven itself in the laboratory, Greenburg said, and ORNL is now receiving funds to develop a field-deployable prototype system that should be commercially available within two years.

SensorNet is a system being developed at ORNL to create a command and control network to coordinate Homeland Security data, and Greenbaum said information from AquaSentinel can easily be fed into that system to alert the authorities in the event of a chemical warfare attack on the nation’s river systems.