Chemical Biology laboratory: from small samples to large-scale field studies
The chemical and biology laboratory (CBL) provides clients with an overview of the presence of pollutants, the effects and possible solutions. These pollutants include nitrate, phosphate, metals and organic substances that are potentially toxic. They affect the health of humans and nature and they can have an adverse effect on biodiversity. We analyse and validate research methods and models for the breakdown of plastics and chemical components in soil and water/groundwater. One example is PFAS, a short name for a large number of emerging substances
The CBL’s work includes a range of perspectives and different scales, in the lab and in the field. Our researchers focus on the relationships between microbiology, substances and the energy transition, human health and biodiversity.
Solutions for major issues sometimes start on a small scale in the lab.
Human health in relation to water involves threats such as Legionnaire’s disease and E-coli, or the formation of blue-green algae in recreational waters, which can make both animals and humans ill. Issues that arise in the energy transition may involve microbial corrosion caused by bacteria. That can degrade, among other things, foundation piles in offshore wind farms. Pipelines and sheet piling can also be affected. CBL therefore works in response to client requests to investigate, for instance, the effect of pumping a different substance through a pipeline. Hydrogen, for example, which is easy for bacteria to metabolise.
Specific client questions about new technologies
Specific client questions also emerge about new technologies for tapping into other energy sources. Examples include heat and cold networks where chemicals are used. But what if there is a leak? The lab looks at how chemical components in groundwater can be measured and experiments are used to investigate how substances behave in the soil. Questions that arise in this respect include: how dangerous are they, do they degrade and, if they do, what happens then? Do things get worse?
Questions like this also crop up with troublesome contaminants. For example, research with an experiment in a reactor have now shown that there seems to be a bacterium that can eat up some of the PFAS.
The CBL resets the boundaries for the analysis and validation of models and research methods. As in the case of microplastics in oceans and their impact on human health. Initially, research looking at the degradation of plastics was conducted in salt water only but it is now looking at fresh water as well. How long does the degradation process last, and what grows on and adheres to the plastics? Could that possibly be even more harmful than the plastics themselves?
Experimental analyses for reliable solutions
The lab’s answer to all the questions that arise now and in the near future is: the numbers tell the story and assumptions should be kept to a minimum. This is even possible in relatively simple experimental analyses conducted by the lab. Nevertheless, the expertise is actually focusing increasingly on a broad approach to the analysis and validation of research methods and models. The researchers at Deltares go into issues in depth, work everything out and come up with practical, reliable solutions.
That is needed because it is not unusual for chemical issues to have direct implications for the society in which we live: the people, nature and the economy. Simply analysing a sample is no longer always enough because the issues are becoming more urgent: climate change, circularity and excessive burdens on the environment in soil and water. In these circumstances, working on the basis of limited assumptions can constitute a risk.
Current practice has demonstrated that the CBL’s clients – water authorities, ministries, gas companies and engineering firms – can also generally not afford to investigate just one aspect of an issue.
The awareness that our natural resources are too precious not to be handled with extreme care has become more urgent: solutions are under a magnifying glass because they are more visible, and people are even more indignant if solutions don’t work out as intended.
From a small sample to a large-scale field study
Our laboratory uses all the resources and experimental research available to Deltares for our approach based on the idea that ‘the numbers tell the story’: we have microbiological and DNA technologies at our disposal as well as sensitive organic and inorganic detection methods, both in the lab and in the field. That means that, as the CBL, we are the first link in a chain that starts with a sample that can hardly be seen by the naked eye in a small bed bottle before scaling up to a column experiment and then going to the geo hall, water or soil flume or to the hydro hall, possibly culminating in a large-scale field study. During that process, questions are dropped and other questions arise: each facility adds the value needed for our client requirements.
This can be seen in projects focusing on developments such as the energy transition, effects on human health and declining biodiversity. In this way, we are continually expanding our knowledge of the water and soil system. By combining a range of knowledge disciplines such as microbiology, geochemistry and hydrology, and through intensive collaboration with other knowledge institutes in the Netherlands and internationally, the CBL continues to deliver high-quality research that addresses the complex issues that emerge from government bodies, society at large and industry.
Mignon sequence technique
The determination of a population at the DNA level makes it possible to estimate exactly what is living there and study what is really in the sample being analysed. What is new compared to current techniques is that no assumptions are made in advance about which substances are probably responsible for the breakdown of a given substance, and which should therefore be targeted by the research. Instead, there is targeted screening (determination of the population): what is really there? This provides a better overview of the biological material present in samples.
The technique is not new. What is new is that Deltares has been working on it since Oxford University made it more accessible and affordable.
- Deltares has years of experience with designing and conducting laboratory experiments, field work, and working with sensors. We also have wide-ranging expertise in the domains of microbiological and geochemical processes.
- The CBL is also increasingly working on the analysis and validation of research methods and models in salt water. An example is the monitoring of the breakdown of microplastics in the oceans.
- The CBL looks for answers to questions from practice, and we have the expertise and experience to use innovative methods or develop them ourselves.
- Passive sampling is a technique that has been developed by Deltares in collaboration with a range of organisations in the water sector. It is an example of an inventive approach to measuring water quality.
- The CBL is currently located in Utrecht but it will move to Delft in 2024, allowing it to work even more closely with the other laboratories and research facilities at Deltares.