Ocean XPrize reels in teams for acid tests

With sea life is in danger due to rising ocean acidification, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean XPrize kicks off with $2 million in prize money on the line for the best methods for measuring ocean pH levels.

The world's oceans are turning more and more acidic, and that's serious -- especially for a wide variety of corals, crustaceans, and molluscs. And when those creatures are endangered, so too are many other types of sea life.

But even as the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is leading to lower ocean pH values -- the lower the pH number, the higher the acidity -- there have been few effective methods to measure the change as accurately as scientists would like. Now, though, thanks to the prospect of winning a $2 million prize and scientific glory, 18 teams have stepped up with 21 technological approaches to measuring oceanic pH.

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Wendy Schmidt Ocean X Prize competitor Team Durafet's sensor in use at Palmyra Atoll. Team Durafet, one of 18 teams invoved with the competition, includes members from Sea-Bird Scientific, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Honeywell Aerospace's Advanced Technology group. Jennifer Smith

Today, the XPrize Foundation unveiled the 18 teams that have qualified to pursue the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean XPrize, which will be awarded next summer to the groups that best create "pH sensor technology that will affordably and accurately measure ocean acidification from the shallowest waters to the ocean depths." Among the entrants are a group of teens, a surfboard sensors company, and several European teams working on a range of scientific approaches.

Half the prize money will be awarded for the most accurate sensors, while the other half will go to the team that comes up with the most affordable solution in what could be called a high-tech and high-stakes variation on the paper litmus tests people may recall from their high school days.

Prize organizers are most excited by the fact that, until now, there have only been three working commercial systems for measuring ocean pH levels. The Wendy Schmidt Ocean XPrize could boost the number of such systems "nine times," said Paul Bunje, senior director of oceans at the XPrize Foundation.

That's crucial, Bunje added, because those products are expensive, often inaccurate, and hard to use -- sometimes requiring a manufacturer's reboot after each deployment. "Not only are we getting new methods," Bunje said, "but we're incentivizing new products that are affordable, usable, and deployable anywhere at scale."

And that could dramatically help scientists determine the scope of the problem they face. "We don't have the data that allows us to understand and allow to respond" to rising ocean acidification, Bunje told CNET. "New developments are moving slowly forward, but...we lack the ability to (deploy) these things around the world."

According to Bunje, the oceans today are, on average, about 30 percent more acidic than at the beginning of the industrial revolution -- an increase that is about 100 times faster than what has been found in the Earth's geologic record. At today's rate of carbon dioxide emissions, the foundation argued, our oceans will be more than 200 percent more acidic by 2100.

The competition's goals are two-fold. First, the competitors are aiming to build the most accurate, strong, and affordable ocean-based pH sensors. At the same time, Bunje said that the winning approaches will ideally be usable by many people, across a variety of fields, a prime directive for XPrizes. "We're not just rewarding great research," he said. "We're rewarding great innovation."

Incentive awards like the XPrize have been increasingly used to take on some of humanity's biggest challenges. Because of the high-profile nature of the competitions and the scientific accolades that come with winning, as well as the promise of future commercialization of their technologies, teams often spend more money to compete than they win.

Past successes include the original $10 million Ansari XPrize, which Scaled Composites won in 2004 by being the first private team to send a manned spacecraft to an altitude of 100 kilometers twice in two weeks. Other competitions include the current $30 million Google Lunar XPrize, with 18 teams vying to be the first private group to put a rover on the moon. Even the White House has begun a series of incentive challenges to tackle things like decreasing global carbon emissions or maximizing the effectiveness of community colleges.

First announced last September, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean XPrize has slightly less ambitious goals -- and less monetary reward -- than others. But to some oceanographers, providing faster ways to measure the oceans' acidification is an important step forward in working quickly to protect the seas' health. "Typically, the development of oceanographic sensors and platforms are developed by the research community through federal research grants," said Eric Terrill, director of the Coastal Observing and Research Center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "This method has been highly successful in developing high-quality measurement techniques, but does introduce a time lag to commercialize and propagate new sensing technology to the broader community."

No Easy Feat

According to Bunje, 77 teams initially entered the Wendy Schmidt prize. But because of the high bar for qualifying for the competition, including providing highly technical documentation and convincing Bunje and his fellow judges the entrants could actually build what they proposed, that number was slashed to 18 teams with a total of 21 different entries.

Later this month, the competitors will gather in Monterey, Calif., for three months of testing in a controlled laboratory setting to ensure the various sensors' accuracy, stability, and precision. Next February, a month-long trial along the California coast will put the top teams' sensors to the test. And next May, five finalists will have their technologies evaluated at a full ocean depth of 10,000 feet. Judges will then determine the two winning teams, with the announcement scheduled for sometime next summer.

Bunje touted the diverse backgrounds of the 18 qualifying teams -- ranging from experienced "big dogs" in the field of oceanography to talented amateurs, including many students. "We know it's not always the experts who have the best ideas," he said.

The 18 teams come from six countries and 11 US states and range from a group of teenagers from Seaside, Calif., to a San Diego outfit developing sensors embedded in surfboards. Others include a team from the Paris, France-based tech startup Fluidion, which specializes in micro- and nanotechnologies, engineering of sensors for extreme environments, and deep-water operations; an Austrian team of students and faculty from Graz University of Technology's Institute of Analytical Chemistry and Food Chemistry; and others.

Terrill called the XPrize approach to solving this problem an "interesting experiment in its own right," but noted that it's unclear yet if $2 million is enough to "catalyze this field."

But Bunje believes the incentive prize approach can help solve the problem -- especially helping to get the technology in the most hands. "If we're going to be measuring ocean acidification," he said, "we need devices that can be used by many, many people."

 

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