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Techwatch | 24/09/2019

MEET THE INVENT FINALISTS: Dr Panagiotis Manesiotis and Federica Pessagno, Co-Founders of P-Sense

Here is a fact that I bet you didn’t know: rivers and lakes age over time.

That aging process is due to the fact that plants grow faster than they die and decompose, so over time, a natural body of water becomes filled up with nutrients and plant matter. The matter collects at the bottom, making the water shallower over time. This natural process is known as eutrophication.

However, like many natural processes, human activity is disrupting it. Fertilisers used for agriculture (containing phosphates) are speeding up eutrophication.

Two scientists at QUB are hoping to slow these man-made impacts, by creating a field-ready test for phosphates in soil and water. Their test will signal to farmers and environmentalists where to focus action on removing some phosphates.

The process goes like this: fertilizers run off into water systems, causing high concentrations of phosphates, which cause algae blooms. “As the algae grow, they are consuming oxygen– at the expense of all other organisms in the surrounding ecosystem,” says P-Sense co-founder Dr Panagiotis Manesiotis.

“Also, phosphorous is a useful element that is largely non-renewable. Once phosphorous is mined from the ground and used up, it disappears into places where it’s really hard to get, where it taints water sources. There are very few technologies out there to recover phosphorus, but our test can help mitigate wasteful use and identify hot-spots where remedial intervention can recover useful quantities of phosphorus,” says Panagiotis.

Panagiotis is originally from Greece, but he’s been a Senior Lecturer in Analytical Chemistry at QUB for the past seven years. He has joined forces with Federica Pessagno, a PhD researcher from Italy, to create P-Sense’s testing strips.

About P-Sense:

  • Levels of phosphate in soil and water are tested instantly using a dip-stick that changes colour with increasing levels of phosphate
  • The testing strips do not require samples to be sent to the lab, as is traditionally the case, leading to a huge cost savings
  • P-Sense says its strips cost 50p each, whereas a lab-based test runs £50-£100 – and results are instant, as opposed to taking several days
  • It assists with two problems with agriculture: wasting expensive phosphorous-based fertilizers, and run-off of those fertilizers into the water system

“Satellite imagery will show an unnatural green colour in rivers, lakes and sometimes even near river mouths in salt water,” says Panagiotis.

“That green colour is caused by the algae, which are consuming the oxygen and other nutrients, choking the fragile ecology of that body of water.”

He says that testing for phosphates can assist farmers as well as the environment: “This is an expensive global problem – farmers may be spraying slurry or other fertilizer when they already have enough phosphate in the soil. Because our finite supply of phosphorous is running out, this becomes more expensive year after year.”

P-Sense will be incorporated, and spun out from the University, later this year. A patent application is underway for the unique technology.

Of his move to Northern Ireland, Panagiotis says, “Greece can be too warm – and that can be distracting, because you often have to put down your pencil and go for a swim. I have been living on the island of Ireland for about 10 years, and I’ve had a great time both North and South – the ethos of the country, engagement with industry, and the research opportunities are great here.”

Federica agreed, adding, “The opportunities and the support that I received over the years in Northern Ireland have allowed us to bring our idea out of the laboratory. We started an amazing journey that will hopefully end up making a really positive environmental impact, by improving water and soil quality.”

P-Sense is now a finalist in the Invent 2019 awards competition, in the “Agri-Science” category sponsored by Fujitsu. The Invent Final Awards night, sponsored by Bank of Ireland UK, will be held on Thursday 10th October. Tickets are available here.