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August 23, 2022
University of Oulu
KAUTE Foundation grant recipient Kevin Lyons uses real-time monitoring methods to better understand the factors influencing shallow groundwater wells. By observing and monitoring groundwater, the work of well managers is made easier and the availability of clean drinking water is ensured.
Ending up in water engineering research was a happy accident for Kevin Lyons. He began his studies with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Trinity College Dublin, where he specialized in bacterial genetics. He then continued with a master’s degree in antimicrobial resistance at the University of Nottingham, during which time he also did research at the University of Birmingham. After graduating with a master's degree, Lyons moved to Finland to find work as a researcher.
"I contacted most of the microbiologists in Oulu. One of them was Dr. Katharina Kujala, who specializes in water and environmental microbiology research at the university. She was working on a project with another researcher, Dr. Pekka Rossi, and they gave me a job as a research assistant. Later, the two became my PhD supervisors," says Lyons.
Lyons is currently doing his doctoral research in the Water, Energy and Environmental Engineering research unit of the University of Oulu and also working closely with researchers from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. The team studies the properties of water in shallow groundwater wells used for drinking water supply in northern and central Finland.
The grant received from KAUTE made Lyons' research possible throughout 2021. During the year, Lyons collected and analyzed water samples from groundwater wells and wrote a research report, which was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. According to Lyons, his background in microbiology has provided a good starting point in the field of versatile and multidisciplinary water engineering research.
"Microbes are everywhere, and not all of them are harmful to our health. Many are beneficial to us or have no known health effects at all. They play a crucial role in the functioning of ecosystems, and therefore identifying different kinds of microbes in a groundwater well can tell us something about the factors influencing that well. That’s why we study microbial communities as well as water chemistry in our work," says Lyons.
Lyons' research focuses on investigating, monitoring, and observing the water quality of shallow groundwater wells in sparsely populated rural areas of northern and central Finland. In Finland, groundwater is the most important source of drinking water, and more than half of Finns' drinking water comes from groundwater.
According to Lyons, groundwater wells are very susceptible to changes in the environment. Seasonal changes and snowmelt, farming, and changes in water quality in lakes and rivers all affect groundwater quality.
"We are very dependent on groundwater as a source of drinking water. At worst, groundwater pollution leads to waterborne epidemics and the spread of diseases," says Lyons.
Maintaining shallow groundwater wells in rural areas and monitoring water quality is expensive and laborious, and the well managers working on them often do not have the same resources at their disposal as in the water supply systems of big cities. Lyons and his colleagues have established real-time groundwater monitoring systems, which use digital sensor technology and thus enable monitoring of water quality in real time. Real-time monitoring allows groundwater data to be collected and viewed on a computer at any time.
"Even today, groundwater quality is often monitored by taking samples from the wells only once a month or once every few months. This means that changes in water quality may not be noticed very quickly, or even at all. With real-time monitoring, contamination events are detected much more quickly and can be dealt with immediately," says Lyons.
Although the research is carried out in the laboratory and at the office on a computer, the pinnacle of the whole work is carried out in the field and in contact with local well managers.
"Close contact with the well managers enables good communication between managers and researchers and ensures clean drinking water for citizens. The well managers can tell us about the history of the well and any problems they have noticed, and we can think about the problems together," says Lyons.
"In my previous research, it was interesting to examine what happens inside a bacterial cell, but also difficult to see what practical benefit this had for society. It is great to leave the laboratory for the field and see water research helping people in practice," Lyons sums up.
Lyons sees a lot of potential in real-time monitoring systems and water engineering research in general.
"Even though the world is changing, people will always need clean drinking water. Water will also play a central role in the development of agriculture and industry in the future. As researchers, we must not only utilize all existing means to meet the need for clean water but also constantly develop new tools to ensure the availability of clean water," says Lyons.
"By utilizing the methods of real-time monitoring, reporting on measurements, and conducting experiments based on the results, we can improve the condition of groundwater wells and the quality of drinking water. This requires money and time but ensures the availability of clean water in the long run,” says Lyons.
In his research, Lyons has familiarized himself particularly with the natural conditions of northern and central Finland and sees application possibilities for the technologies he and his colleagues have utilized especially in other Nordic countries and Canada, which geologically resemble Finland. He believes that in order for the availability of clean water to be secured globally, the utilization of similar technologies should be studied in different conditions.
"Groundwater wells in different countries vary in age, size and structure, so conclusions valid in all circumstances cannot be drawn from one study. However, I don’t see why the technologies we work with could not also be applied to ensure clean water availability in, say, the Global South," concludes Lyons.