The researchers from imec at Holst Centre are focused on developing targeted solutions for societal needs based on key technologies. One such major societal concern is water quality. Now, imec's on-chip fluid sensor technology promises to open new opportunities to enhance water management. Already nearly at the end of the prototyping phase, imec was looking to produce probes in low volume to use in the prestigious Internet of Water Flanders project. By partnering with Wellinq Sensor Solutions (also known as Sentron Europe), imec found the ideal expert to take the prototype design even one step further and produce a first 'limited edition' robust, highly portable water probe.
From innovation to robust product
"We owe much to the experts at Wellinq Sensor Solutions for enabling us to get this probe with its unique technology to market as quickly as we did," explains Marcel Zevenbergen, programme manager gas & liquid sensing solutions at imec at Holst Centre. "As research and development institute, we drive innovation and develop key technologies that are the very basis of long-term technology-driven strategies. In this case, to help solve the urgent need to monitor and improve air- and water quality."
"The probe is set to unleash a true revolution in water quality monitoring and management: with it we can now harvest accurate, real-time and fine-grained data, from not just one or two measuring points, but a multitude of points. The sensors in the probe will measure the precise levels of environmental threats such as salination, pesticides, heavy metals and pharmaceutical products. imec has greatly advanced the miniaturization of fluidic sensors by integrating all the necessary sensing elements on a 1 cm2 area without losing sensitivity, accuracy or longevity required for the application. Sensors include the highly accurate electrical conductivity sensor and the long-term stable microfluidic based reference electrode, an essential component for many chemical sensors."
"But, being researchers, we don't have the means to fulfil the step that comes after innovation: producing marketable, ready-for-use products. By partnering with industry – as we have now done with Wellinq Sensor Solutions – we are moving beyond the proof-of-concept stage to offering a tailor-made, robust product for the Flemish Internet of Water project. Don't forget there are many challenges to be solved going from developing on-chip fluid sensor, to having in place a probe that is small, robust, lightweight and that can withstand the adverse influences of water and weather. Not to forget the capability to remain functioning even if the probe should dry out in case of low water levels. To make such a probe requires other, unique skills. Wellinq Sensor Solutions has the expertise and production capacity we were looking for."
"Yes, it might have been possible for us to make a single, or a couple of probes, without getting Wellinq Sensor Solutions on board. But, besides the longer time it would have taken us, we would certainly not be able to produce the number of probes that are needed to make the Flanders water project successful."
More than the sum of the parts
"At Wellinq Sensor Solutions our core business is advanced sensor technology. Our specialisation is in being able to integrate these sensors into the products of our clients. When imec approached us, they were already in an advanced stage with their electrical conductivity, nitrate and pH sensors. But there was an urgency on their part to have a finished product containing multiple sensors – for use in the Flanders water project," recalls Ria Oosterveld business development manager at Wellinq Sensor Solutions.
Oosterveld continues: "The partnership has been extremely fruitful, building on each other's know-how. The probe that we designed and produced now contains multiple sensors: developed by imec or Wellinq Sensor Solutions. The choice of sensors was done in close collaboration with imec, each time opting for the sensor that best fit the use case."
"Besides developing and producing our own range of sensors, we are specialised in the integration of sensor technology for a broad range of applications. Worldwide, we work with leading research institutes and high-tech industry. We typically have commercial clients. With this project, we are not making something in answer to market demand. We are making an innovative probe that can help find answers to major societal and environmental challenges related to clean air and water. As soon as the added value of this probe has been proven in the Flanders project, we hope and expect to find a commercial party who can add the probe to its product portfolio and market this innovative technology."
Partnering to make a unique probe
"As both imec and Wellinq Sensor Solutions operate in the field of sensor development, the primary need was to clearly agree on the tasks and expertise required from both sides to be able to bring the project to a successful conclusion," Oosterveld remarks.
Zevenbergen: "Our primary goal was to find a partner who had the expertise to be able to make the probe that we had in mind: one that keeps on working in varying dry or wet conditions. Wellinq Sensor Solutions has unique skills in successfully developing, manufacturing and integrating ultra-small sensors into custom sensor assemblies that can survive in harsh fluidic environments. So, we moved on from there.'
Oosterveld: "We have each kept our own sensor IP. With the sensor technologies already being available, we have been able to move quickly in completing the design and development of the probe. We focused on making the probe robust, lightweight and easy-to-use in a network of sensors: all exactly in line with the requirements set out by imec."
Zevenbergen: "The next step for us will be to move to other areas in which our advanced sensor technology could be successfully applied. Take, for instance, bio-processes in the pharmaceutical industry which require highly accurate measurements of such things as temperature, pH levels, conductivity and for instance dissolved oxygen. Together with Wellinq Sensor Solutions we are looking at ways in which we can build on each other's sensor know-how to drive innovation and use the probe in applications as varied as food safety monitoring to monitoring chemical processes."
Oosterveld: "Yes, this collaboration is, to me, a perfect example of how you can work together to achieve your goal and more! imec's technology enabler for a network of water probes is an extremely valuable innovation. But, without a properly functioning probe, a great idea is doomed to fail. That's where we came in. And it's how we hope to continue this partnership: using the strengths of both organisations to build sensor solutions that make the impossible possible."
imec at Holst Centre - Driving technology for monitoring air- and water quality
Our sensor technology opens up the possibility to put in place long-term roadmaps for implementing sustainable water management. This technology makes manual water quality measurements conducted in relatively few places, using expensive single parameter probes, followed by time-consuming lab analysis of samples redundant.
By leveraging big data, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things (IoT) we can help to effectively solve issues of surface water quality. This will provide the water industry the key to taking action based on real-time and context-driven data.
Wellinq Sensor Solutions – Sensor integration services
As high-tech company, Wellinq Sensor Solutions has a broad experience in contract development and manufacturing of sensor sub-assemblies in OEM engineering projects. They have successfully developed a non-glass pH sensor for their proprietary robust ISFET (Ion Sensitive Field Effect Transistor). The ISFET is manufactured in-house and is used in, amongst others, environmental applications where varying wet/dry conditions make the use of conventional sensors ill-suited.