CORVALLIS - A collaborative effort among Oregon scientists from academia and private industry has successfully created a promising new technology to measure chlorine levels in public water systems.

A grant program of the National Science Foundation - expressly designed to encourage ventures such as this - helped chemists at Oregon State University and Umpqua Research, a Myrtle Creek company, create the new system.

The commercial potential of this invention should be significant, scientists say, in the face of increasingly stringent regulations and concern about human exposure to chlorine and chlorination byproducts.

"The chlorine monitors that evolve from this research could be used at thousands of water treatment plants across the nation," said Jim Ingle, an OSU professor of chemistry. "Our technique works well and has been proven in the laboratory. The next step will be to make a commercial prototype."

According to James Akse, manager of research and development with Umpqua Research, the technology will help address the need for more precise monitoring of chlorine. It's one of the most common chemical additives used to sterilize drinking water and prevent water-borne disease outbreaks.

A tiny amount of chlorine helps. Too much can be a problem, he said.

"The consequences of long-term human exposure to elemental chlorine and chlorine-containing organic compounds is an issue of increasing public concern," Akse said.

Chlorine and chlorocarbons have been associated with carcinogenesis, reduction in human sperm count and threats to wildlife, Akse said. It's anticipated that future EPA regulations will further reduce the allowable levels of potentially toxic organochlorine compounds, such as chloroform.

Existing methods to measure chlorine levels have various problems and drawbacks, can increase costs, are not as accurate as desired and can sometimes be interfered with by other elements in the water, said Ingle.

"Umpqua Research had considerable expertise with continuous flow systems and solid phase modules that can adjust the acidity of a solution," Ingle said. "They've been active in work with NASA, and every space shuttle flight has carried their water purification devices."

For his part, Ingle is an expert on luminescence. A combination of their separate expertise allowed the scientists to create the new technology.

Chemiluminescence, Ingle said, is the property of some chemical reactions to literally produce light and glow when their electrons become excited - it's what lights up the firefly. For the new water monitoring technology, the scientists used a chemical called luminol that glows with blue light in the presence of chlorine.

In a special device that mixes luminol in flowing water, the researchers use a highly sensitive photodetector to detect chlorine levels in parts per billion, which is more than adequate for a monitoring technology.

With an approach such as this, chlorine used in water treatment, pulp mill effluents, sewage treatment or other applications could be constantly monitored and adjusted to exact levels as water flowed by. Excess chlorination could be eliminated.

This project was supported by a $100,000 grant from the "small business technology transfer program" of the National Science Foundation. A second grant from that program, for $350,000, will now be sought to develop the new invention into a commercially marketable product.

Umpqua Research would then license the new technology for manufacture, Akse said.

"This has been a very rewarding collaboration," Ingle said. "Neither the university or Umpqua Research could by itself have developed this system."