Researcher developing sensors to measure hormone levels in water

December 20, 2021

Maria Fidalgo


A Mizzou Engineer is working on a way to produce sensors that could quickly detect hormone levels in ponds, lakes and rivers. Maria Fidalgo, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, received funding from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for the work, which will begin this spring.

Specifically, Fidalgo is partnering with USGS’s Columbia Environmental Research Center to measure levels of testosterone, which can impact the growth and reproduction abilities of fish. Additionally, traces of testosterone in water can indicate larger contamination problems that harm humans and wildlife.

“USGS has advanced analytical capabilities but it’s difficult to bring samples back to the lab when you’re working with small organisms,” she said. “They also have to wait weeks for results. We want to know whether we can have a fast tool that lets us know in the field what we are finding in terms of hormone contamination in the environment.”

With a field deployable sensor, USGS could focus resources on testing only areas where high levels of hormones are detected.

The sensors will use the same technology  Fidalgo and collaborators developed to detect traces of pesticides in produce. They include porous polymer films that reflect light at different wavelengths when certain molecules — in this case testosterone — are detected. A spectrometer is then used to measure slight changes in those colors.

In the lab, Fidalgo’s team demonstrated that the sensors successfully detected minuscule levels of a certain pesticide in clean water. But picking up traces of testosterone in natural water will be trickier, she said.

“Ponds, lakes and rivers have different natural chemistries that are random as opposed to conditions in the lab where we control everything,” Fidalgo said. “For us, it’s a very interesting partnership to see whether we can advance the technology.”

During the project, her team will also study ways to manufacture the polymers and mass produce the sensors to make them a practical solution in the real world.

“Sensors work great, but the ability to manufacture them in large numbers in a reproducible manner is a huge challenge,” she said. “So this project challenges us to find a way to produce a lot of sensors while developing a better system to fabricate them to be more reliable.”