Making a splash (with robots!)

Chlorine-based products have been used for decades to disinfect swimming pools but their reaction by-products can irritate people’s skin and cause other problems. This is why two researchers at TU Delft have spent over five years developing an alternative.

PhD candidates Marjolein Peters and Maarten Keuten from Civil Engineering and Geosciences started working on DiPool in 2011. The project, which stands for ‘Dutch Innovative Pool,’ sought to create an alternate method without the use of chemical disinfectants.

The duo found themselves involved in a series of somewhat unusual experiments during the project. For example, to measure sweat levels during swimming, they had volunteers dressed in wetsuits perform exercises in a water tank. Imitations of bodily fluids were also used to simulate ‘swimmers’ dirt’ during their further analyses.

“We didn’t ask people to pee into jars or anything like that to do our experiments,” Peters said. “We used a synthetic called urea.”

Urine in pools is definitely a challenge, especially when it comes to young children who are trying to both learn how to swim and the merits of healthy bathroom habits. Convincing more people to shower before they dive in could also help keep pools much cleaner. Dirt on human skin comprises an average 30% of the total contaminants found in them. Urine typically contributes another 30%.

In addition, microorganisms that can be found in swimming pools tend to treat these contaminants like an all-you-can-eat buffet. After stuffing themselves full of them, they create a slimy substance called biofilm that loves to cling to surfaces in pools. Getting rid of this gunk can be incredibly difficult without the use of strong disinfectants.

Unfortunately, convincing swimmers to practise good hygiene is a seemingly impossible task, which means these cleansers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, Peters and Keuten think that waterproof robots similar to Roombas could prove more effective when it comes to eliminating biofilm with the added benefit of not irritating swimmer’s skin and their eyes.

“The techniques themselves are not new,” Peters said. “There are small robots that can mow lawns and vacuum floors. There’s already one that can clean the bottom of pools. In our proposed robot, we would add a UV lamp, a brush on the bottom of it and a vacuum component. The UV light and brush would disinfect and remove the biofilm and the robot would vacuum it all up.”

Peters and Keuten are currently finishing the writing phase of their shared project and Peters is planning to defend her PhD thesis in November. Unfortunately, it could be many more years before the technology they’ve designed together begins scrubbing biofilm at your local swimming pool.

Editor Redactie

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