Mizzou Engineers, USGS Create Tool to Test Oil in Water

November 12, 2020

Hand reaching for blue vial

The level of oil in an environment could soon be tested in a small vial such as this, thanks to research happening between Mizzou Engineering and USGS.

Those responding to oil spills could soon have an easier way to determine the environmental impacts. A Mizzou Engineer is helping develop a tool to analyze water samples and measure oil levels using a smart phone.

Dong Xu, Shumaker Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is working on the project with the U.S. Geological Survey. After a preliminary grant from USGS got the project started, the research team recently received a second round of funding for the work from the Department of the Interior’s Inland Oil Spill Preparedness Program.

The unit would drastically reduce the price tag associated with that testing and make the testing easily usable.

“It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money for professionals to go to a site, collect samples and send those samples back to the lab,” Xu said. “Then the lab spends a lot of money using expensive equipment to measure how much oil is in the sample. Our approach is much cheaper and much more accessible.”

The device includes a slot for a cell phone and a space for a bottled water sample. With the press of a button, the device shines fluorescent lights through the sample and snaps a photo with the smart phone. A corresponding mobile app then analyzes the image to measure oil. Xu’s team is using machine learning methods to train the program to predict and determine oil levels.


The device could be a game changer when it comes to clean-up efforts after oil spills.

One oil spill can cause pollution for hundreds of miles and impact waterways in several states, Xu said. This will allow spill responders to monitor oil pollution almost immediately after the spill and target cleanup on the most contaminated areas.

“It is a very low-cost method that can help guide decisions about where oil should be cleaned up, and whether it might harm fish and wildlife or people,” said Jeff Steevens, a research toxicologist for USGS’s Columbia Environmental Research Center and Xu’s collaborator on the project.

Once samples have been analyzed by the mobile app, information goes into a database. There, spill responders can see all records in chronological order, as well as a map of impacted areas.

Dong Xu portrait

Dong Xu

The device will be used by USGS, National Park Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service to respond to oil spills. Additionally, Xu said students could be given the device as a learning tool, allowing them to participate in water testing.

“We plan to continue developing this tool and approach so that it can be made available to others, including the public, to measure oil and even other contaminants,” Steevens said.

Dong Xu also has appointments in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center and the MU Institute for Data Science and Informatics.