Companies to Spend Millions on Devices to Monitor Water Saftety

Detection system developers devote time, energy to protecting water supplies from bioterrorism

LIVERMORE, Calif. (AP) -- Two companies are teaming up with Sandia National Laboratory to develop a monitoring device that can detect biological agents -- such as germs, toxins and bacteria -- in water systems.

The agreement was struck Monday between Sandia; CH2M Hill of Englewood, Colo., an engineering and construction firm; and Tenix Investments, Australia's largest defense and technology contractor. The two companies have agreed to spend tens of millions of dollars during the next 10 years to turn such a device into a viable product.

The device will be based on a type of lab-on-a-chip created by Sandia in Livermore. The three-pound glass chip, about the size of a nickel, is etched with tiny channels through which water samples can flow through.

The next challenge lies in adapting the chip into a water safety system that can run for a month at a time. The device would be placed in reservoirs or pipes, where it can sniff out dangerous agents in the water by breaking up waterborne germs into their proteins, matching the unique chemical fingerprint of each germ species with a database of chemical patterns for pathogens. It would then report results to a central control room.

"It's not just the terrorist attack that we're all worried about,'' said Yolanda Fintschenko, a bioanalytic chemist at Sandia. "There are day-to-day threats we face, nationally and around the world, from naturally occurring pathogens.''

According to Sandia, current real-time and unmanned water testing is limited to nitrates, ammonia and acidity, rather than contaminants.

The agreement also calls for a prototype to be developed and tested within six months. The two companies will have exclusive rights to the resulting product for six to 12 months after the agreement ends. The federal government retains rights to any patents.