ENVIRONMENTAL MONITORING

A clean bill of health

A clean bill of health

Environmental studies often involve handling large data sets. Greg Blackman looks at some of the environmental monitoring applications using data management systems

Scientific Computing World: October/November 2008

Protecting the environment is big business. With climate change high on the political agenda of governments around the world, legislation controlling how we treat this precious resource is constantly being tightened. The Kyoto Protocol, for instance, sets binding targets for reducing a country’s greenhouse gas emissions, forcing governments committed to the agreement to evaluate methods for curbing their emission levels.

Legislation addresses the problem by making governments think about methods of reducing their country’s impact on the environment and, in doing so, driving the development of more environmentally friendly technology. Governments pour vast sums of money into research projects aimed at improving this technology. Take the combustion engine, which is responsible for a large proportion of many countries’ CO2 emissions. The technology aimed at reducing the car’s impact on the environment is continuously evolving so that, now, many automotive manufacturers produce electric-gasoline hybrid models and some (BMW, Honda, Cadillac) are releasing hydrogen-powered vehicles, all of which emit less CO2.

For an organisation to comply with environmental regulations there needs to be large scale monitoring of what it releases into the environment. At the same time, government bodies keep a check on the levels of pollutants and potentially harmful substances in the environment, which also requires large amounts of data to be collected. It’s this data that aids with setting regulation levels in the first place.

Environmental laboratories and analyst companies can therefore be contracted to monitor various aspects of the environment and, in doing so, have to deal with large amounts of sample data. Data management software, such as Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS), is key to many companies involved in environmental monitoring.

Colin Thurston, director of product strategy, process industries, informatics at Thermo Fisher Scientific, says: ‘Environmental monitoring companies have to test for a wide range of contaminants, some of which may only be present at very low levels. This means that such organisations are collecting and processing a large volume of data from a variety of different analyses.’

Manually managing and reviewing data is a time-consuming and, occasionally, error-prone activity. ‘Having the data management system manage collection schedules that can automatically identify where and when samples should be taken, and then to automatically identify the samples as they are processed, goes towards a more efficient and responsive process,’ explains Thurston. At the same time, in analysing the data, the system can be set to ‘reliably and quickly identify any outlying results and immediately notify the user as these are found’, he says.

Thermo Fisher Scientific’s SampleManager LIMS has specific modules to support the activities of environmental monitoring, such as sample point scheduling, for sample collection planning; multi-level specifications, to compare tests against allowable limits; and a complete Water Management Module, to meet the needs of drinking water and waste water testing organisations.

LabWare supplies its LIMS products for environmental monitoring applications around the world. ‘LabWare LIMS has a large and successful user base within the environmental and water industries, where the operation is often unique in terms of the required types of sampling, distribution, testing, and reporting,’ states John Gabathuler, director, industrial and environmental, at LabWare.

LabWare LIMS provides the ability to schedule samples based on the monitoring needs as prescribed by national or international compliance requirements. Several different schedulers are available for pre-logging samples, assigning tests, and printing bar-code labels.

LabWare’s software is used in a range of applications, including water management applications in Australia, where, in New South Wales, the Department of Water and Energy tests samples from the whole state, as does the South Australian Water Corporation in Adelaide. Both use LabWare LIMS. In South Africa, the Water Act of 1998 recognised that water was a ‘national asset’, which was effectively nationalised by the state under the management of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF). DWAF laboratories, in monitoring the country’s water supply, use LabWare LIMS.

Wastewater companies can also benefit from a recent partnering between Accelerated Technology Laboratories (ATL) and Linko Data Systems. The two companies have developed a data management solution by combining ATL’s Sample Master Pro LIMS and Linko’s pre-treatment software specifically for regulators dealing with water or wastewater supplies.

City Analysts, an environmental analysis company based in Ireland, also runs a LIMS system supplied by LabWare. Operating out of two main laboratories in Dublin and Limerick, the environmental analysis company provides a range of chemistry and microbiology analysis for four key areas: water, soil, food, and air and noise. The water analysis is mainly clean water, although a lot of wastewater testing is also carried out. Drinking and surface water must comply with European regulations and samples undergo a range of tests to ensure this, such as Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), suspended solids, heavy metal testing, levels of nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates, and pH, among others. The water is also tested for various pesticides, although most of that work is subcontracted out to other firms.

City Analysts installed its LIMS software in 2005. Prior to that the company had operated on a paper-based system, with results documented and filed as paper reports. Niamh McIntyre, laboratory manager at City Analysts says: ‘The number of samples we [City Analysts] are able to deal with has risen from 5,000-6,000 per year in 2005 to 12,000 per year at present. This increase would definitely not have been possible without the use of LabWare LIMS.’

‘There was a huge potential for error in the original paper-based system, mainly through transcribing from one sheet to another in generating reports,’ McIntyre explains. ‘Test results can be searched and extracted easily from the LIMS database, substantially reducing workload and also removing the need to transcribe data.’

McIntyre goes on to say that the consistency of result entering has also improved using LIMS. The system ensures all units for a specific test are the same and that samples requiring a certain test are flagged for analysis.

One of the limiting factors for City Analysts prior to implementing the LIMS software was generating final reports for the customer. ‘The results were ready, but due to the time taken to compile the report, there was often a time delay before the customer received those results,’ says McIntyre. LIMS stores all the data in one place making it easily accessible and has improved the company’s turnaround when it comes to providing customers with results.

Future improvements to the system include incorporating an automated invoicing system, where invoices are generated and sent automatically via LIMS. City Analysts are also looking to move to a web-based LIMS, with customers accessing their results over the Internet directly from the database. This could be particularly beneficial for the sampling that is subcontracted out to other companies, as in the case of pesticide testing. A web-based LIMS would allow the contracted companies to enter results directly into City Analysts’ database.

Generating electricity is another big producer of greenhouse gases and, with dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, the debate still rages about using nuclear energy as an alternative to coal, oil and gas. British Energy owns and runs eight nuclear power stations in the UK, together with one coal-fired power station. It is the UK’s largest producer of electricity, generating 9,000 megawatts of power from the combined nuclear stations and 1,960 megawatts from the coal-fired station.

Gary Brodt, support engineer for chemistry, and chemist Fiona McLaughlin both work within the chemistry department of one of the nuclear power plants. The work involves monitoring the various liquids and gases used within the day-to-day running of the power station, with approximately 730 different parameters checked each month. For instance, the oil used to lubricate equipment is tested to ensure it has the correct flashpoint and viscosity.

‘Historically, a bespoke computer system was used to collect and manage the chemistry data, which became increasingly difficult to maintain, as new software from the latest equipment wasn’t compatible with it,’ says Brodt.

In 2004 Brodt looked to replace the station’s computer system. However, standard, off-the-shelf LIMS packages were found to be more suited to the pharmaceutical industry, with its heavy quality assurance (QA) requirements, than to the needs of a power station.

Three components were eventually sourced from Adept Scientific, a global company providing software for research, science and engineering. DASYLab, along with Northwest Analytical’s (NWA) Quality Monitor and Quality Analyst were combined to create the Chemistry Analysis Information Management Interface System (CAIMIS).

‘CAIMIS was designed as three modules,’ explains Brodt. The first module, installed in 2005, incorporated live data into the system, acting as an interface to the power plant’s own instrumentation. Inputs from individual turbines, for example, and the equipment running these, are fed directly into the system. The second module was added in April 2007, and collects all laboratory data, while the third module aims to integrate a statistical process and control aspect to better analyse what the results show. This final module is yet to become operational.

All historical information was transferred into CAIMIS and the system is used to capture, process and store live and laboratory data. This is then analysed by the chemists to ensure results are within set limits and also to show any trends in the data over time.

‘The software package is compatible with different machines running different operating systems. It was therefore easy to migrate the historical data, which was stored in various formats, into the CAIMIS database,’ Brodt explains.

Brodt feels that one of the main benefits of the system is the ease with which monthly reports can now be generated. Analytical data from various different tests are collated within the report, which, prior to the installation of CAIMIS, could take up to a week to put together. ‘CAIMIS provides a searchable database, so any relevant data can be found and the report generated in as little as 10 minutes, which is a huge time saving,’ he says.

The system is also very simple to use – an important requirement for Brodt in choosing the software. McLaughlin states: ‘The screens are user-friendly and colour-coded to indicate related groups of samples. Before implementing CAIMIS, results were recorded in notebooks and then transferred to a computer. Now there is a computer in each laboratory and it’s easy to input results straight into the system.’

Brodt points out that the software is flexible enough to set up a system that matches the requirements of the chemists using it. It is also simple enough to use to allow scientists with little or no database experience to be able to get the most out of it. ‘CAIMIS uses specific input forms for entering data depending on the samples being tested, and it highlights daily parameters that need to be checked,’ says McLaughlin.

Environmental analysis applications require regular monitoring of designated points and tracking of the samples taken from those locations. According to Thurston of Thermo Fisher Scientific: ‘Advances in the integration capability of data management systems now means that new technology, such as portable GPS devices and hand-held computing, has started to make an impact on environmental monitoring. Having samples logged at each location, and their locations automatically verified and recorded greatly reduces the chance of samples being lost or details being confused.’

A lot of environmental monitoring data is collected in the field. Thurston notes that a wider use of remote connectivity and mobile computing would allow real-time data to be collected and sent direct to the data management system. ‘Writeable radiofrequency identification (RFID) technology could, for example, be used to automatically store sampling data (GPS location, date and time, etc) as an inherent part of any sample container and thus vastly speed up the sample reception process,’ he says. In addition, miniaturised or remote analysers could be deployed to take regular readings without the need to physically collect samples in the field, feeding sample information into the data management system. All of which would improve the quality and availability of environmental monitoring data.

Environmental monitoring in laboratory clean-rooms

The term environmental monitoring (EM) is also used within the laboratory and is synonymous with quality control (QC) testing. EM testing has become increasingly important in the life sciences industry, where checks are put in place, and often required by law, to ensure product safety. Applied Biosystems, a California-based company providing technology for the life sciences industry, has designed its SQL*LIMS Micro/EM to automate collection of EM sample information and to manage the large quantities of data generated from these EM and QC checks.

EM and QC testing involves taking prescribed samples or making checks at a number of stages throughout the development and manufacturing lifecycle of a product. These checks might range from instrument calibration to testing for bacterial contamination within the final product. Application areas where environmental monitoring has particular importance include manufacturing pharmaceuticals and vaccine production, as well as water purification for human use.

The SQL*LIMS Micro/EM is a mobile data acquisition system for paperless collection, processing and tracking of EM and QC samples. Both barcode and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology are integrated into the system, along with a sealed tablet PC, without fans, making it suitable for clean-room environments.

In terms of taking the samples, the SQL*LIMS system has the ability to capture data at the point of collection, rather than transcribing information from the test equipment to a computer database. ‘This reduces transcription errors and also simplifies the workflow by cutting down the steps required to capture the data,’ notes Peter Boogaard, director of LIMS product management and LIMS global marketing at Applied Biosystems. Boogaard continues: ‘Most customers have implemented a barcode system containing all the relevant information about specific samples. The operator simply uses a barcode reader to input the data into the system, thereby further reducing human error.’

Applied Biosystems’ SQL*LIMS Micro/EM, designed for collection of laboratory QC data, incorporates a barcode system and is suitable for clean-room environments.

The system can drive workflows within the laboratory, ensuring all mandatory tests are undertaken within the correct timeframe. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) containing information on the test procedure, how often the test is to be carried out, limits for pass/fail, etc, are stored on the system. The EM data is then used to generate audit reports, to prove to an auditor that the correct checks were carried out to meet the regulations and that, ultimately, the product is safe to release into the marketplace. ‘Having all the data on a searchable database means the relevant information can be extracted easily to generate the report. At the same time, in the event of customer complaint, existing data stored in the system can be accessed quickly to produce EM test results for that particular product batch,’ says Boogaard.

‘There is increasing pressure for the laboratories carrying out EM and QC checks to add more value to the company, rather than just providing results,’ comments Boogaard. ‘There is also a trend towards correlating laboratory data with other processes to generate a more complete dataset and to be able to mine information from that dataset more effectively. Paperless systems, such as SQL*LIMS Micro/EM, are becoming increasingly used in laboratories to provide a more consistent and efficient method of capturing and managing data.’