Tiny chip can clean up our harbour

JOE DAWSON
Last updated 05:00 15/11/2013
Manukau Microchip

SEWAGE SOLUTION: Boon-Chong Seet with a device which could be flushed down toilets to identify points of cross-contamination between sewage and stormwater pipes.

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A tiny microchip flushed down the loo could solve a long-standing environmental problem that has degraded the Manukau Harbour.

Sewage has been polluting stormwater which flows into the harbour for years. It is caused by by the accidental joining of what should be separate pipes during repair work.

Finding and repairing those connecting points has been a difficult task but a group of electrical engineering students may have cracked it. They were put on the case by Manukau Harbour and Onehunga stalwart Jim Jackson.

Mr Jackson approached AUT School of Engineering's design and creative technologies lecturer Boon-Chong Seet with the idea of deploying the tags farmers use to keep track of cows to follow the sewage journey.

Despite the technology never being used in this way before, Dr Seet says a trio of students made a breakthrough.

"I had never heard of this usage - tagging a body of water which is moving - but the project worked," Dr Seet says.

Jakov Biondic, Jagmohan Singh Jaura and Sean Whittaker used a 3D printer to create a lightweight case which holds a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip.

The chip transmits data to a receiver which can chart its progress and identify it.

If one ends up in a stormwater pipe the team can trace where it came from.

"Jim wanted a solution that could be less time consuming and suggested this possibility and wanted us to help him to test the feasibility of it.

"If this were to be really deployed in a real environment there is still some fine tuning to be done, but overall the basic objective of this project has been met.

"I believe this project opens up a new application for environmental sensing."

Mr Jackson says he is pleased with the results and the potential for its future use.

The next question is how to fund it and he will champion the device to the Auckland Council and Watercare.

"This harbour has been very badly neglected over 100 years, and the next generation coming through is much more sympathetic to seeing some better outcomes.

"We've treated it as a rubbish tip for 100 years and next generation is saying that's not appropriate."

Mr Jackson says water quality in Onehunga Bay can be bad as a result of these "delinquent pipes". It could well make using the new beach being built there unattractive.

"If you're going to be a good corporate citizen you need to encourage universities to look at these really major environmental problems. Some may fail but that's the whole process.

"There is a possibility we could finish up using that technology to identify these cross-overs by having people in the catchment area launch this thing, and they're only a dollar each."

There are known cross connections in One Tree Hill and Hillsborough, Mr Jackson says.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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