UCD professor takes a close look at the chemistry of water

21 Apr 2017

Prof Aoife Gowen. Image: Women on Walls

Prof Aoife Gowen is examining water in a bid to improve medical devices and food safety. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.

Water is everywhere. It is the most abundant molecule in the known universe and without it, life as we know it would not exist. But what do we really know about good old H2O? 

There’s plenty more to find out, according to Prof Aoife Gowen, who is taking an extremely close look at how water changes chemically under different environmental conditions.  

It’s a challenging task, but what her group at University College Dublin (UCD) School of Biosystems and Food Engineering finds out could ultimately lead to new ways of identifying bugs in food and water, and developing more robust implants for the human body.

Going hyperspectral 

Gowen’s expertise lies particularly in hyperspectral imaging, a technique that images objects and extracts information from each pixel about wavelengths across the electromagnetic spectrum. The results can give insights into the ‘unseen’ properties and chemistry of the object.   

While using the hyperspectral imaging on mushrooms to try and detect the early signs of spoilage, Gowen’s curiosity was piqued about how the chemistry of the water, in and on the mushrooms itself, was changing. 

“We found that a lot of the quality changes we were seeing in the mushrooms were related to changes in the absorbance of water in the mushrooms,” recalled Gowen, who worked on the project at UCD with Monaghan Mushrooms. “We were not seeing the mushrooms directly but we were seeing the water in the mushrooms change as a result of the biological processes.” 

Testing the limits

Gowen moved to Japan and, during a joint project between UCD and Kobe University, she began probing water using hyperspectral imaging. 

“We had been thinking that this imaging could be a way of assessing water quality,” she explained.

“But we saw that the level of pollutants that you could pick up using this technique would need to be quite high – we could see parts per million rather than parts per billion – so it would not be useful for testing water quality. Though, perhaps there could be some application in monitoring wastewater, where the pollution is more concentrated. But that is research – you go in and see what are the limits.”

When she came back to UCD, Gowen started to think about how close-up hyperspectral imaging of water could tell us more about how it affects processes in living systems such as biofouling, or when implants in the body deteriorate over time.

“We look at these processes all the time in science, we look down microscopes and we model the materials that go into bone grafts and hip replacements,” she said. “Water is an integral part of living tissues and processes, and I wanted to be able to ‘see’ what it does using hyperspectral imaging.”

Interface happenings

This led to her current project, which is probing what happens to water at interfaces where it interacts with various materials. “We probe the spectrum of the interface between the water and the material,” explained Gowen. “It’s a really challenging thing to do; you are talking about looking at chemical changes in the hydrogen bonding inside the water molecules.”

The work, funded by the European Research Council, is capturing data from water on relatively simple surfaces such as silicon, as well as more complex materials such as cements used in the body for repairing damaged bones. 

At the same time, her lab is building computer models of the processes, and Gowen has developed new computational tools to manage the enormous amounts of data pouring out of such close-up analyses of materials. “These kinds of data analysis tools are useful whether you are looking at spectra from mushrooms or from satellite data,” she said.

Future applications

Gowen, who featured in the Women on Walls portraits by Accenture and the Royal Irish Academy, is buzzing with ideas for applying the findings into the future.

“Because water is involved in so many processes, being able to identify important changes opens up the possibilities of designing implants in the body that are more resistant to breaking down, and maybe a handheld device for scanning food for spoilage,” she said.  

She now wants to apply her knowledge of chemical imaging to even more areas, including a project with the Health Research Board to help pathologists detect cancer in prostate samples.

Separately, she is considering technology to track nanoparticles that migrate into living systems. “I’ve worked with a lot of collaborators in labs around the world,” Gowen said.

“And when we think about it, we typically find ways that ‘seeing’ these chemical spectra can offer a whole new dimension.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication