Originally published March 22, 2016
By Leonard Martinez
A portable handheld device created by UTEP students could help find cancer-causing arsenic in the water of thousands of Texans at a cheaper price and more quickly than existing equipment.
The three-person team from The University of Texas at El Paso won the $10,000 grand prize at the 3rd annual Paso del Norte Venture Competition + Expo (PDNVC+E) for the Arsenic Canary, a product that will provide water utilities with a new, innovative and cost efficient way of measuring arsenic in water.
The PDNVC+E provides a venue for emerging entrepreneurs from universities to expand their network, develop new opportunities, and become active players in the regional economy by showing their products in a two-day competition held at UTEP.
The winning team is made up of Daniel Marquez, a master’s student in civil and environmental engineering; Joel Quintana, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering; and Andres Mejorado, a junior marketing major.
The Environmental Integrity Project recently released a report titled “Don’t Drink the Water” that states drinking water systems serving 51,000 people in several dozen rural Texas communities exceeded federal drinking water standards for arsenic for more than a decade. Arsenic is a carcinogen, a substance capable of causing cancer.
The UTEP team started work on the project at the beginning of the semester and had about seven weeks to work on it before having to turn it in to be a part of the competition. Long hours had to be put in for the project.
“A lot of days we worked from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., including weekends,” Marquez said. “We even worked on Super Bowl Sunday.”
While equipment currently exists that detects arsenic in water lower than 10 parts per billion per the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy, the equipment costs anywhere from $30,000 to $150,000, needs chemicals for the process, and is about the size of a 4-foot-tall cabinet. There’s also some equipment that is less expensive but it does not detect the lower concentrations of arsenic, Marquez said.
The Arsenic Canary uses optic sensor technology and would decrease the cost of the process because it won’t need expensive analytical equipment, chemicals, or prior training.
The team has a June deadline to finish a working prototype but expects to have it done by May, with tests beginning that same month.
They are using the grand prize money toward buying parts for the sensor, such as the filter, UV light and other components.
One of Marquez’s favorite parts about working on the project is how students with three different majors came up with a product that could help so many people.
“Before this I would have never thought how business or electrical engineering fit into this, but it’s amazing to see how it all fits together,” Marquez said.
“I think the level of the competition has increased considerably for the last three years, and it is really nice to see how each university is now allocating more and more resources to mentor and support their student teams,” said Aaron R. Cervantes, director of operations for the Mike Loya Center For Innovation and Commerce, which hosted the competition.
“Additionally, since each institution has different strengths, the diversity of projects that participate is very reflective of that, ranging from food supplements and innovative clothing lines, to hydroponic kits and arsenic removal technologies,” Cervantes added. “This year, it was a UTEP team that took the first prize, which is a testament to the hard work from our students, faculty and mentors. I hope we continue to raise the bar to allow our region’s entrepreneurs to become better prepared and more competitive.”