New water sampler developed with T.E.Laboratories

‌T.E.Laboratories collaborated with experts from the Lancaster Environment Centre to develop a new sampling approach as an assessment tool for compliance with European environmental quality standards.

Formed in 1991 T.E.Laboratories (TelLab), based in Tullow, Ireland, are a multi-divisional analytical and manufacturing company operating in the chemical and environmental sectors. Customers include many of Ireland’s top companies in the fields of manufacturing, environmental consultancy, fuel distribution & storage, pharmaceutical manufacturers as well as national and local government.

The challenge

Ensuring good surface water quality is important for aquatic ecosystems and the protection of human health. The aquatic environment, which includes lakes, rivers, groundwater estuaries and coastal zones, is vulnerable to changes induced by human activities. As a result, the European Union introduced a new ambitious piece of environmental legislation, The Water Framework Directive WFD2000/60/EC (WFD) that aims to achieve and ensure “good quality status” for all European water bodies by 2015.

An important facet of the WFD was to identify a list of priority pollutants that are present in surface waters and have known or suspected toxic properties. So far there are 33 substances on this list with a further 15 proposed substances, many of which are present at trace levels only.

There is a requirement for substantial monitoring of these pollutants to achieve “good ecological and chemical status” by 2015 by all Member States.

The reliable sampling and analysis of these substances to make sure that environmental quality standards, which are defined for each substance, are not exceeded in rivers, lakes or in coastal waters, represents a huge challenge, particularly whilst trying to keep costs to a minimum. While the monitoring methods required are not specified, the widely accepted method involves grab sampling. This technique requires repeated sampling to ensure that adequate statistics on water quality can be attained.

As a result, there is a clear demand for a more robust, cost-effective, chemical-specific, method for determining compliance with the environmental quality standards for regulators, water utilities and water using/discharging industries. TelLab had a strong interest in developing such an offering alongside the provision of a full analytical service in the future.

The solution

Dr Andy Sweetman and colleagues at Lancaster University have developed a new passive sampling technique and a ‘family’ of samplers tailored to quantify a specific range of substances. Passive water sampling has several advantages over traditional grab and active sampling methods.

The university’s diffusive gradients in thin films (DGT) technique provides an in-situ means of quantitatively measuring substances in water without having to carry out on-site calibration, saving time and money. It provides time-integrated data and yields high spatial resolution data through co-deployment of simple, cheap units.

Passive samplers can also be used to concentrate pollutants that are below the detection limits of traditional grab samples and can be made pollutant-specific, resulting in improved detection and quantification. The unique construction of the DGT sampler can be used to determine trace levels of a wide range of heavy metals as well as an expanding list of organic chemicals.

TelLab initially developed a relationship with the university through the KARIM project, (funded by Interreg IVB), which developed a network of more than 500 innovation members from universities, innovation agencies and businesses to create a more competitive Europe through sharing expertise. Using information from their work with the Irish EPA and outputs from an FP7 Marie Currie project a list of pollutants of interest was produced and discussed with the team at Lancaster.

Dr Andy Sweetman, Professor Hao Zhang and Dr Chang’er Chen from LEC, staff from the Engineering Engagement Team in the Department of Engineering, and TelLab staff have worked together to adopt the approach in order to use it as an assessment tool for compliance with WFD environmental quality standards.

They identified which priority substances would be of most interest to regulators, water utility companies, and industries responsible for surface water discharges, developed and tested a range of DGT based samplers, along with a suitable robust deployment device ready for testing the potential market for water quality monitoring. They have also carried out preliminary market research into the potential uptake of the sampler into the marketplace and the long-term investment potential for commercial sampler development.

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The total cost of the project for staff, travel and materials, was £40,000, £20,000 supplied by TelLab, £20,000 match-funded through the Impact Acceleration Account (IAA). The IAA is £600,000 funding from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council to finance a range of activities designed to foster greater collaboration with industry and bridge the gap between the lab and the marketplace.


The research has brought TelLab closer to the possibility of a commercial service that would enable them to tap into a large potential market in both the UK and Ireland. It is further expected that similar market opportunities will exist in other European markets. TelLab has taken a hot desk in the Lancaster Environment Centre to continue and develop their relationship with the university.


  • Outputs from this work will allow TelLab to provide an analytical service that is required by Environmental legislators in both Ireland and the UK
  • Brought the company closer to the possibility of a robust, reliable and cost-effective commercial product to into an estimated UK annual market of €300,000
  • Assist in the development of a new technique that could become an industry-standard method for the assessment of surface water quality
  • More robust, cost-effective, chemical-specific, method than existing techniques
  • This activity together with other collaborations with Lancaster University has resulted in TelLab taking a hot desk within LEC which so far has created 1 new job. It is expected that this will grow during the course and after completion of the project.

Company feedback

“The IAA is an efficient and cost-effective way to complete a short term technical research project with significant support and input from highly skilled University Principle Investigators. It also allows longer-term projects and relationships to be developed for further collaborations.” Mark Bowkett, Managing Director, T.E.Laboratories (TelLab) (Ireland).

Researcher feedback

“Working with Mark Bowkett from TelLab has established a productive collaboration that not only helps to advance the science of passive water sampling devices, but also to develop a product that is suitable for a wide range of applications in a Europe-wide market place,” Dr Andy Sweetman, Senior Lecturer, Lancaster Environment Centre, CEH Research Fellow.

Future plans

"The company has plans for a long-term relationship with the University and as well as the hot desk TelLab and Lancaster University have received funding from NERC for a CASE PhD studentship starting in 2014 to develop further applications of the sample and to broaden the range of calibrated priority pollutants and analytical methods.

"In addition to this TelLab are taking part in the inaugural China Catalyst Programme and are also in the process of writing some Horizons 2020 applications which include both Lancaster University and other companies co-located in LEC," Mark Bowkett added.