As climate change intensifies, so will ocean acidification–a process where the ocean’s pH drops as it takes up excess CO2 in the atmosphere. The impacts are almost unimaginably large. Commercial fisheries could be wiped out, and species that keep the ocean healthy, like coral, mollusks, and plankton, will dwindle.
Right now, there’s no good way to measure the ocean’s pH. There are plenty of pH sensors in existence, but they aren’t accurate enough tho capture the sea’s changing pH, and none can hold up in the deep sea. To even start thinking about how to manage the ocean’s changing pH, we have to be able to measure it. That makes this the perfect X Prize challenge: a problem that can be solved at least partially through a not-yet-invented but possibly reachable technology.
Last September, the X Prize Foundation announced the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize, challenging teams to create affordable, accurate pH sensors that can measure ocean acidification from shallow waters to the ocean floor. This week, the 18 competing teams were announced. They come from six countries (including Austria, which has no ocean within its borders), and range from a group of teenagers to scientists with years of experience developing pH instruments.
The teams are about to go into lab trials with their devices. In February, the top of the heap moves on to real world trials that will test the accuracy of their devices in coastal conditions. In May, five finalists will test their sensors in the ocean. The team that produces the most accurate sensor will get $750,000, as will the team with the most affordable (and still accurate and stable) sensor. Second place in both competitions is worth $250,000.
The teams include Blue Devil Ocean Engineering, which started as an engineering club at Duke University; Boardformula, which is leveraging surfboard technology in the competition; pHFine Scale, a family team that includes five teenagers; the National Oceanography Center UK, a team of scientists and engineers; and Angel Sharks, a team with experience in artificial intelligence R&D.
The surf industry engineering consultancy Boardformula is representative of just how varied the approaches are to the competition. Separately from the competition, Boardformula began working on embedded sensors that can be placed inside a surfboard fin to track ocean data while a surfer is in the water. The data, including temperature, GPS coordinates, and pH, is automatically uploaded to a phone via Bluetooth after the surf session is over. The team had not yet started developing pH sensors yet at the time it entered the competition, says Boardformula founder Benjamin Thompson.
“What we’re seeing is that anybody can be an innovator. It’s proving that point,” says Paul Bunje, senior director of prize development and ocean health at the X Prize Foundation.
The winners will be announced next summer.