LIVERMORE — Scientists are rushing to devise a chemical and biological sensor for drinking water systems, portrayed by experts Monday as highly vulnerable to covert attack.

In a research contract signed Monday, Sandia National Laboratories-California agreed to deliver within six months a prototype of an unattended water sensor to Englewood, Colo.-based engineering firm CH2M Hill and Tenix, the largest defense and engineering firm in Australia.

To succeed, Sandia scientists must turn a handheld chemical sensor developed for the military and emergency first responders into a machine that cheaply and reliably can sniff out dangerous toxins and germs twice an hour in water mains, tanks and pump houses.

They are places where natural, biological slimes grow and whitish mineral salts accumulate, frustrating earlier attempts at putting sensitive, real-time monitoring instruments into the nation's water and sewer systems. These fouling agents can complicate chemical analysis and clog the hair-thin, glass sample channels in Sandia's device, known as MicroChemLab.

"If they can solve that problem, great. But it's been a bugaboo for most people," said BruceMacler, risk assessor for water systems in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Pacific Southwest region.

"To be honest," he said, "I'll believe it when I see it."

So far, the only available real-time sensors for water quality are expensive and provide little direct information about pollutants.


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They measure factors such as chlorine consumption, electrical conductivity, acidity

and turbidity that allow water-treatment engineers to infer whether a kind of contamination exists in the water.

Sandia's device, if it works, would be the first to identify precise toxins or species of viruses, bacteria such as E. coli and protozoans such as cryptosporidium, implicated in multiple large outbreaks of diarrhea in the United States since the 1980s.

Tenix and CH2M Hill engineers became interested in Sandia's handheld detector two years ago after talking to the lab's scientists and attending their presentations at conferences. The lab itself has taken on water quality and availability as a national-security project, devoting its scientists to study of desalination and water treatment in the American West, Jordan, Israel, Egypt and, recently, Libya.

MicroChemLab originally was designed in the 1990s for the worst of biotoxins, the poisonous secretion of Botulinum clostridium, popularly known as Botox. In certain forms, undiluted, Botulinum toxin is the most deadly substance known.

"The one that really scares people is Botulinum toxin," said Yolanda Fintschenko, a bioanalytic chemist who manages microfluidics research at Sandia, as well as the new research agreement with CH2M Hill and Tenix.

Sandia's handheld detector is a miniaturized chemistry lab that uses a form of chromatography to identify botox and other toxins secreted by bacteria.

By breaking waterborne germs into their proteins — the basic building blocks of organisms — Sandia scientists expect the detector to grab a unique chemical "fingerprint" of each species of germ in the water and match it against a database of chemical patterns for pathogens.

The database and analysis software has to be very good, or the device will produce false alarms.

"It becomes very important to tell between cowpox and smallpox, even though they are very close, closer than twins, really," said Jay West, a toxicologist leading the project for Sandia.

"False positives don't do us any good. They could lead to the public losing confidence," said Tom Linville, assistant general manager for engineering at the Contra Costa Water District and chairman of an American Water Works Association committee on water plant security.

"We need something that will have a real water-quality benefit," he added, not "just something for security alone."

Almost immediately, officials at CH2M Hill will begin shipping refrigerated water samples from Denver, Albuquerque and 18 other U.S. cities for testing at Sandia's lab in Livermore.

"So we're going to get a look at water from all over the country," said Laura Santos, a Sandia business development manager.

Then, Sandia scientists will install their sensor in Concord, on Linville's water system, for the most rigorous test — a full month of operation, sipping a few billionths of a liter of water every half hour for testing, without human involvement.

"We have to let this thing run a month on its own and not touch it," West said.

Scientists familiar with Sandia's sensor speculated that it may find germs in the nation's drinking water that managers of water systems never knew were there.

"If we start finding them, as I'm sure we will, the question is what to do with them," said EPA's Macler. "It could really lead to toughening our regulations."

Contact Ian Hoffman at ihoffman@angnewspapers.com.