The Arctic Ocean, 1997. Gary Klinkhammer had strapped a water chemistry analyzer onto the hull of a retired U.S. Navy nuclear submarine to measure carbon. He had come to this bleak and desolate place looking for organic matter, fertile detritus dumped into the ocean by massive rivers in Siberia and North America.
“The Arctic in a lot of ways is more like a big lake than an ocean. It’s more isolated,” says Klinkhammer, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. “Following carbon in the Arctic turns out to be a very powerful thing,” he adds, because it can reveal details about the chemical and geological processes that drive ocean life.
But Klinkhammer felt hampered by his equipment. His analytical tools could produce a lump-sum measurement of carbon, not a detailed picture of the dissolved and particulate forms that emanate from sources such as forests or farms, peat bogs or cities.
Following his Arctic expedition, he got to work on a better way to analyze water quality. What he learned about tracking carbon and other materials led him to create a Corvallis-based technology company that is advancing water-quality protection in the United States and abroad.
Today, in addition to his role as director of the W. M. Keck Collaboratory for Plasma Spectrometry at OSU, Klinkhammer is founder and chief scientific officer of ZAPS Technologies, which designs and sells an analytical system, LiquID™, based on his research. Through optical analysis of flowing water, the system can rapidly monitor over 100 constituents in water-supply and wastewater systems and the environment.
“If you’re looking at the Santiam River or something like that, you don’t really know where that carbon is coming from,” he says. “Some of it’s coming from groundwater. Some of it’s coming from a reservoir. There are multiple sources that it can come from.”
Pinpointing the identity and source of organic matter and other constituents is a critical step in protecting public health. For example, storms and floodwaters can pollute drinking-water supplies with sediment and disease-causing microbes. One of the most famous cases occurred in 1993 when the microbe cryptosporidium contaminated the drinking-water supply of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than 400,000 people got sick and 69 died.
Klinkhammer’s analytical innovation provides both rapid optical analysis and online display of data. It monitors chlorophyll, algae, E. coli and other materials 24/7 in real-time. It can even track inorganic materials such as nitrate, chlorine and ammonia.
Currently, ZAPS employs more than 20 people and has installed monitoring systems in Corvallis, Albany, Seattle and Lafayette, Indiana. Others are scheduled for San Diego and Australia.
Klinkhammer started working with sensors as a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island. His goal then was to locate hydrothermal vents on the vast mid-Atlantic ridge. In his research, he has used water-quality analysis to locate hydrothermal vents in the Antarctic and to understand chemical processes in the oceans, including the Columbia River plume off the Oregon coast.