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Mueller and Ayers Awarded MIT Sea Grant Funding to Develop Miniature Aquaculture Sensors

Jointly appointed Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Marine and Environmental Sciences Assistant Professor Amy Mueller and Marine and Environmental Sciences Professor Joseph Ayers were awarded a grant to develop miniature E-Jet printed multi-sensors for aquaculture water quality monitoring and management. The research is awarded through the MIT Sea Grant, a program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sea Grants require that the research they fund solve regional challenges related to the oceans. Mueller and Ayers’ research is focused on aquaculture – specifically offshore closed-pen marine farming of fish, an important future facet of the New England economy’s food sector.

Closed-pen farms have many health benefits for farmed fish and the surrounding ecosystem, however because closed-pen farms do not benefit from natural flushing from the ocean, the pen water must be carefully monitored for chemical, nutrient, and other imbalances. “This is things like nitrate, oxygen, temperature, pH – the parameters we need to keep in constrained ranges to keep the fish healthy,” explained Mueller. Think of a closed-pen farm like a large version of an at-home fish tank. If you do not filter the water, it will become dirty, and the health of the fish will suffer. Current sensors are bulky and expensive, costing up to $10k each. Mueller’s team envisions an innovative miniature sensor platform, about 1 square centimeter, which could hold dozens of sensors. Such a sensor would be built using an electrohydrodynamic jet (E-Jet) printer and a variety of metallic and biologically based inks. “By using this highly miniaturized printing method we enable integrating lots of sensors in one place,” she said. Currently, there does not exist a reliable method for rapid online sensing of nitrate in saltwater, so the project will focus on developing one. These miniature sensor networks would provide a boon to farmers beyond the equipment cost-savings. They would enable online monitoring of water nutrients and automation of water quality management, critical as pens are located further offshore and human visits for monitoring become too costly to be practical.

Water quality is an important factor in deciding to consume farm-raised fish over wild caught. The quality of the water can affect the taste of the fish as well as both the health of the animal and the consumer. Thus, aquaculture with reliant nutrient management is crucial to developing sustainable seafood consumption practices. This research will create an innovative new sensor solution to marine aquaculture water quality monitoring.

Related Faculty: Amy Mueller, Joseph Ayers

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering