UI RiverLab brings laboratory to river


Photo courtesy of Jenny Druhan

The University of Illinois RiverLab sits at the bank of the Sangamon River in Monticello. The lab pumps water out of the river, becomes filtered and is automatically sent through different chemical analytics machines that provide the water quality.

By Cecilia Milmoe, Features Editor

The University of Illinois RiverLab, which collects data about the chemical makeup of the Sangamon River, isn’t a typical laboratory. It’s not in a building, but rather on the bank of the river.

RiverLab, installed last June in Monticello, is the only one of its kind in the country. It is the size of a shipping container and is a “lab in the field,” collecting water samples and analyzing them at the same site. The lab runs constantly and automatically, producing high-resolution chemical records every 30 minutes.

Jenny Druhan, associate professor in LAS and the research team leader of RiverLab, explained how RiverLab works.

“We pump water out of the river, we filter it, and we send it automatically into a whole bunch of different chemical analytical machines that give us water quality in real time,” Druhan said.

Druhan said that while information about the amount of water in rivers is extensive, information about rivers’ chemical composition and nutrient levels is scarce due to the required effort.

“How much water is in the river is really only part of the story,” Druhan said. “There’s also what’s in that water, what’s the chemical nature of that water, are there nutrients in the water, are there you know, other dissolved solutes in the water, are there contaminants in the water? … We’ve had very little in terms of the information for chemical quality.”

Druhan said that other labs have to send researchers out to collect water in containers and then bring the samples back to the lab for analysis. Druhan said that this has limited the data that can be collected, especially regarding data about rivers during storms.

“Now that we have that really high-resolution chemistry record to go along with the water record, we’re actually finally able to understand how storms and different events that cause the river to fill up and flow faster are moving nutrients and elements off of the landscape and into the rivers,” Druhan said.

Druhan said that RiverLab provides unique insight into this information because it is unexplored.

“We’ve never really had a data record like this before; nobody has,” Druhan said. “Maybe it’s not like the most hypothesis-driven study in the entire world, but we’re gonna learn just by virtue of seeing something that we’ve never seen before.”

Druhan said that the reason something like RiverLab hasn’t existed in the country before is because it didn’t seem possible until recently.

“It’s only been in the last few years that people have really started to imagine that it could be done,” Druhan said. “I mean it’s a lot to take a modern, state-of-the-art analytical chemical laboratory and bring it out to a field site like that.”

Druhan said she and the team go out to the lab around twice a week, barring any emergencies. There, they make sure that all of the equipment and technology are in working order. Druhan said that between students and researchers, there are “five to seven” people regularly working in the lab.

Jinyu Wang, a graduate student studying geology, is one of those students. Wang said that since the Sangamon River is impacted by agriculture, RiverLab helps to understand exactly how the river’s composition is affected.

“We have tons of data to analyze and to understand because the Sangamon River is impacted by agriculture,” Wang said. “So we also want to know how agriculture impacts the chemistry in the river water.”

RiverLab has already made new scientific discoveries. Druhan said that while most chemicals in the river get diluted when there is more water, potassium seemingly does not, even as the water levels increase. Druhan said she hopes this information can be used in a meaningful way.

She said she would like to see more technology like this implemented in the future.

“They’re expensive, no doubt,” Druhan said. “It takes a lot to develop this kind of infrastructure, but compared to a lot of other investments that we’re making, they’re really not absurd. And I think we’re getting a lot out of them. So, I would really like to see this network expand.”

RiverLab was produced in France and shipped here to be installed. Druhan said that she was lucky enough to have connections in France that allowed a lab to be set up here. In addition to this RiverLab, there are three labs in France, and there are plans for two labs in Canada and one in China.

RiverLab is part of the larger Critical Interface Network, or CINet, a project spanning multiple universities with a focus on agricultural production and environmental quality. Praveen Kumar, professor in Engineering at the University, serves as the lead principal investigator of CINet. Kumar said he sees the data collected by RiverLab as important for the future of the environment.

“If we are to develop strategies for improving our environment, developing sustainable methods for managing agriculture, this understanding is important because then we can trace back as to what are the factors upstream or on the land, or at the farm scale, that are contributing,” Kumar said.

Druhan said that getting RiverLab operational was extremely exciting for her.

“It’s like my version of putting a satellite up in the space,” Druhan said.


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