The physics, biology, and chemistry of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean work together at every moment in time to play their respective roles in one of Mother Nature's most important and complex systems: the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and its subsequent long-term storage in the depths of the ocean.
The Northwest Atlantic's ability to sequester this greenhouse gas makes the routine monitoring of ocean conditions in the area critical for management and mitigating climate change. But that's easier said than done. The reality is that current techniques to do so in an environment as highly dynamic as the ocean are cumbersome and limited. Innovation in ocean technology is essential to overcoming the challenge.
That's why Vincent Sieben, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Dalhousie University, is dedicating his expertise in microfabrication — that is, the development of miniature electronic circuitry — to the cause. Sieben, one of the biggest players in a field where small works best, is known for his research on lab-on-a-chip (LOC) sensor technology.
The name says it all: LOCs are small electronic devices capable of running micro-sized lab tests within environments like the North Atlantic Ocean, where it currently takes a specialized vessel, crew, and instrumentation to do the same thing.
LOC technology has been applied successfully in fields like medical biology, and Sieben was even the first to commercialize its use in the oil and gas industry with a talented team at Schlumberger. Now, thanks to the OFI seed fund he can conquer the next frontier for lab-on-a-chip: applying it in the ocean science and technology space.
"The OFI seed fund is great because the application process was looking more for the innovative sparks; the innovative seeds that could really lead to bigger things," says Sieben.
His project was done in consultation with leading ocean scientists working in academia, government and industry. Sieben produced a detailed report that explored the technology needs of those studying the ocean, included a catalogue of existing technologies, and defined gaps in data collection techniques.
"We asked: what's the most troubled area [in ocean science] that we really want to apply lab-on-a-chip to?" says Sieben. "It just kept coming back to nutrients and the microbiology. That's the sweet spot for lab-on-a-chip. That's where it shines."
Sieben's final report shaped the next few years of his research activity and led to his place on another OFI-funded research team currently studying the ever-important Northwest Atlantic biological carbon pump.
Now his lab-on-a-chip sensors can be deployed on an array of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). About the size of a hockey puck, these devices can take small amounts of ocean water and move them through a sequence of tests. The resulting data can be logged on the chip itself and accessed after retrieval of the device, or it can be transmitted back to researchers in real-time via satellite. LOC's use in the ocean intends to work around the costly research expeditions currently needed to monitor ocean nutrients and microbiology, making critical ocean data collection far more accessible to scientists.
"In many cases, there's no reason to march millilitres of fluids around a room from one machine to another; machines that have been built in isolation and to interface with humans," says Sieben. LOC can do all of that while submerged in the very environment being studied, he explains.
In addition to the typical scientific papers and conference proceedings that come out of work like this, Sieben's seed-funded project has also resulted in two pending patents and a spin-off company called Dartmouth Ocean Technologies (DOT). Sieben is a co-founder and Chief Technology Officer. There, he's focused on scaling his LOC technology and hiring the students who worked in his Dalhousie lab and helped make all of this possible.
There's much to be gained with the use of DOT's LOC sensors in the management of aquaculture farms and wild fisheries, too. In fact, Canada's Ocean Supercluster recently announced the Ocean Aware project, of which DOT is a key partner. Valued at $29-million, Ocean Aware unites industry partners like DOT with government and academic research teams to commercialize solutions like the LOC sensors to monitor fish health, fish movement, and the environment.
"I've been preaching my whole life that it starts with the sensors. It starts with data. It starts with facts, and it starts with measurements. Until you can measure, you don't really know," says Sieben. "It's the data we're after, and this technology is the tool."