MultiMEMS – Multiplex MEMS for a Step Change in Nutrient and Pesticide Monitoring in the Natural Aquatic Environment

MultiMEMS is a 3 year Innovate UK funded collaborative R&D project which began in August 2014, with a project value of £1.5m.



MultiMEMS is a novel micro-technology platform for the sensing of nutrients and other substances. It will open up the continuous monitoring of nutrients and pesticides, such as phosphates, nitrates and metaldehyde, to new applications. It will give essential observability – which is currently absent - in monitoring the increasing problem of nutrients and pesticides in our rivers and other natural waters.

The new sensor platform is based on the coupling of; polymeric compounds with affinity toward target substances with; micro-electromechanical mass sensing technologies.

The work integrates previous work at the University of Sheffield which derived an affinity layer for phosphate suitable for this new technology platform.

The technology will be low-cost. The aim is for the cost of sensors to be comparable with those used for continuously measured parameters such as pH, DO and conductivity. Additionally, the probes will measure several parameters at once.


The increasing problem of nutrients and pesticides in our natural waters, and the state-of-the-art in monitoring these substances, mean a step-change is required.

The EU Water Framework Directive focuses on anthropogenic impact. The imparting of nutrients on the aquatic environment is arguably our biggest impact; from agri-runoff (59% of nitrates, 26% of phosphates); from wastewater treatment works outfall.Vulnerable zones

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) are areas of land that drain into nitrate polluted waters, or waters which could become polluted by nitrates. They were introduced in response to the EU mandate that all EU countries must reduce the nitrate in Drinking Water to a maximum of 50 mg/l. The diagram to the left shows NVZs in 1996 (blue), and NVZs today (pink). The extent of nitrate vulnerable zones has increased dramatically in recent years.

Around 50% of the total river length in England and Wales has a phosphate concentration greater than 0.1 mg/l. This is the limit observed to say whether water is fit for treatment for potable water.

Nutrients are very difficult to measure in the field. Spot sampling using colorimetry and the like gives a small amount of expensive data, as does autosampling and relaying for laboratory analysis. Obviously, there is latency in the data provided by this latter approach. ISE (ion-selective electrode) sensors are high-maintenance, expensive and give very poor, unreliable data, but are available for ammonium, nitrate and chloride. Some process instruments are available, which use reactions and reagents, at a cost in the order of tens of thousands of pounds.


MultiMEMS is an integration of current technologies:
• attraction of specific substances
polymers engineered to bind only specific substances: affinity layers
• mass sensing
micro electromechanical structures sense tiny accumulated masses, down to 1µg/cm2 of contact area
• signal processing
deducing concentrations of target substances from MEMS structure resonant responses
The MultiMEMS probes will be integratable using industry standard protocols. This will allow this powerful new technology to leverage contemporary logging and communications technology and on-line platforms.


MultiMEMS will allow continuous accurate measurement of a range of substances, starting with phosphates, nitrates and metaldehyde. This will be at a cost comparable to that for other commonly measured variables. This is without resorting to physical samples and laboratory analysis, or the expensive and limited-observability approach of spot sampling.

Devices will be unattended and will measure a series of difficult-to-measure parameters. In short, MultiMEMS will the economic observation of natural waters at a detailed temporal level. This will start to allow the problems created by agricultural runoff and wastewater outfalls to be addressed, and for problems to be addressed further up the chain.