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Building A Better Ocean Acidification Detector Can Now Win You $1 Million


A buoy for measuring ocean acidification.A buoy for measuring ocean acidification.

CREDIT: Matthew Alford / UW Applied Physics Laboratory

The X Prize Foundationannounced a $2 million competition today to spur innovation in the equipment used to measure ocean acidification. Along with climate change, ocean acidification is a major ecological threat posed by humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions. A portion of that carbon dioxide is naturally absorbed by the oceans, creating carbonic acid.

The award is named the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize after its patron — the president of the Schmidt Family Foundation and the wife of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt — who’s already sponsored two $1.3 million prizes through the X Prize Foundation in 2011, which were given to teams for oil cleanup innovations. The Foundation has also funded multi-million dollar competitions for teams of scientists and engineers looking to build better commercial spacecraft and energy-efficient cars.

Ultimately, the goal of the prize is not just to improve the science, but to inspire public awareness and policy action as well. The competition will span 22 months and the $2 million pot is actually broken up into two prizes, but teams can compete for and win both:

A. $1,000,000 Accuracy award – Performance focused ($750,000 First Place, $250,000 Second Place): To the teams that navigate the entire competition to produce the most accurate, stable and precise pH sensors under a variety of tests.

B. $1,000,000 Affordability award – Cost and Use focused ($750,000 First Place, $250,000 Second Place): To the teams that produce the least expensive, easy-to-use, accurate, stable, and precise pH sensors under a variety of tests.

“If a team comes up with the ability to be the most accurate and the most affordable at the same time — Holy Grail, that’s phenomenal,” Paul Bunje, a senior director with the X Prize Foundation and the lead scientist behind the ocean health competition, told NBC News.

“While ocean acidification is well documented in a few temperate ocean waters, little is known in high latitudes, coastal areas and the deep sea,” the prize’s website notes. “Most current pH sensor technologies are too costly, imprecise, or unstable to allow for sufficient knowledge on the state of ocean acidification.” Richard Feeley, a marine scientist and a leading researcher on ocean acidification at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, also explained to NBC News that because ocean acidification is increasing at about 0.02 units per decade on the pH scale, instruments need to be quite sensitive, and robust enough to keep functioning in the ocean for many years.

Because the pH scale is logarithmic, a drop of 1 unit in pH equals a ten-fold increase in acidity. Previous mass extinctions in the fossil record have been linked to spikes in ocean acidification brought on by natural releases of carbon into the atmosphere. While the increase in acidification over the last hundred years has only reached 30 percent of those previous events, it’s also occurred 10 times faster. Historical comparisons and models of humanity’s likely future carbon emissions suggest we may well cover the other 70 percent by the end of this century.

A massive crash in oyster farm populations, which dealt a major blow to the economies of communities on the west coast from 2005 to 2009, has already been linked to ocean acidification. The higher acidity levels primarily threatenthe survival of the small shellfish — krill, plankton, snails, and others — that make up the foundation of marine ecosystems. Meaning there is practically no corner of ocean life — and no corner of the human livelihoods that depend on that life — which isn’t threatened by ocean acidification.