• 09.09.13

An X Prize To Save Oceans From Deadly Acidification

The foundation is offering a $2 million bounty for better pH sensors to gauge rising acid in the world’s oceans. Because how can we stop a catastrophe we can’t even really measure?

An X Prize To Save Oceans From Deadly Acidification
[Image: Ocean via Shutterstock]

Climate change is starting to become associated with all kinds of horrific weather events, from fires and floods to melting icebergs. But through slower and less obvious damage, climate change also severely threatens entire ecosystems.


The latest X Prize, announced today, tackles the grand challenge of one of these ecosystems: the ocean. The $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize challenges entrants to develop affordable, accurate pH sensors that can tell us more about how and why the ocean is acidifying–because you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Today, ocean acidification threatens to destroy coral, mollusks, plankton, and all sorts of other species that keep our waters (and us) healthy. According to one report, the loss of mollusks could reach a cost of $100 billion per year as demand increases by the end of the century. Coral reefs provide up to $30 billion in value each year, through benefits like tourism and storm protection. Without a thriving ocean, humans will be in big trouble.

“It was only about six years ago that scientists started very loudly ringing the alarm bell of ocean acidification. It’s something that seems to be happening right now and at a really rapid pace, but we don’t know very much of the chemistry of the ocean and ocean pH,” says Dr. Paul Bunje, senior director of prize development and ocean health at the foundation. “Oceans are an under-investigated space. We don’t even frankly have the right tools to begin to understand what the challenges are, much less to respond and monitor those problems.”

Scientists do have tools to measure water pH, but they’re severely limited, he says. Some tools were designed by researchers who modified existing products intended for industrial pH sensing. Others are used primarily to meet regulations, like monitoring the outflow of power plants in rivers and other freshwaters. None are accurate enough to measure the changes in pH that happen annually on a global scale, and none are able to hold up in more mysterious parts of the ocean, like the deep sea.

Another recent ocean-themed X Prize (also funded by Wendy Schmidt) searched for better ways to remove oil from water. Read about the ingenious entries here.

As a result, we’re blindsided by ocean events. Bunje recalls how, two years ago, the ocean took everyone by complete surprise. An unusual event brought deep, cold, acidic water up to the surface and killed 80% of the oysters in Oregon’s coastal hatcheries, which produce most of the oysters for the country.

“We weren’t able to monitor the process of ocean acidification because we don’t know what’s going on at the bottom of sea, and we can’t forecast processes,” he says. “Sensors [today] aren’t robust or cheap enough.”

There will be two winning teams in the competition; each gets $1 million. One team will get cash for producing the most accurate pH sensor, and the other prize will go to the team that creates the cheapest and most usable pH sensor that meets a performance standard.


In September 2014, the teams will compete in three competition phases: lab trials (all about accuracy, stability, and precision), coastal trials, and deep sea trials, which will put the sensors on a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean and send them to 3,000 meters under the sea. How do you measure accuracy when the sensors that currently exist aren’t accurate enough? The X Prize team has enlisted a researcher at the Scripps Research Institute who will use gold standard lab equipment that normally wouldn’t make it aboard a ship.

Ultimately, says Bunje, the fix for ocean acidification is the same as the solution to climate change: We need to stop dumping so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The big difference, though, is that ocean acidification happens much more quickly than most other climate change events. “We’re hoping to catalyze the growth of ocean services and ocean data as a market–as a force around ocean health.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.