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The Latest XPrize Winner Can Tell Us How Dangerous Ocean Acidfication Is Getting

The winners of the ocean health competition developed affordable pH sensors and won $1.5 million–and they hail from landlocked Montana.

The Latest XPrize Winner Can Tell Us How Dangerous Ocean Acidfication Is Getting
[Top Photo: Ipatov via Shutterstock]

Ocean acidification is sometimes called climate change’s evil twin. While both are happening because of too much carbon pollution and acidification is just as serious, it doesn’t get as much attention. The latest XPrize competition was designed to change that, offering $2 million prizes to researchers who could come up with new ways to measure the scope of the problem.

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As the ocean sucks up our extra carbon, seawater becomes more acidic, melting the shells of the tiny creatures at the bottom of the food web. Not surprisingly, this isn’t good news for those of us on land either–but we don’t even know how quickly it’s happening. The XPrize asked for two solutions: A cheap pH sensor, and another that was as accurate as possible, even 3,000 meters below the ocean surface.

“There’s this massive market failure that we identified,” says Paul Bunje, the prize lead at XPrize. “There’s almost no investment in the kinds of devices, sensors, and other things that will tell us what’s happening chemically in the ocean. Because the ocean governs so much of what happens on the planet, this is a massive gap in knowledge that needed to be filled.”

Five finalist teams put their sensors through a battery of tests, beginning at a lab at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, progressing to the coast off the Seattle Aquarium, and ending with a six-day trip to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to plunge the sensors deep underwater.

One team, Sunburst Sensors from Montana, ended up winning the $750,000 first prize for both categories. “We actually bring back seawater occasionally from the coast in five gallon jugs,” says Sunburst Sensors CEO James Beck. “We also couldn’t test the 3,000 meter aspect–of course there’s nothing 3,000 meters deep in Montana.”

Their designs draw in a sample of seawater, mix it with dyes similar to what might be used in litmus paper, and then shine a laser through the water to measure the pH. Their affordable sensor will cost under $1,000 to manufacture, compared to over $15,000 for similar sensors. As a sensor company, it’s something that they’d wanted to work on, but the possibility of the XPrize spurred action. “It forced us to really accelerate development and to actually have a working device in a short amount of time,” Beck says. The other sensor, which works at 3,000 meters underwater, wasn’t something they’d considered in the past.

Now, the company will work on bringing the sensors to market. But surprisingly, so will some of the other teams–even some who didn’t make it into the finals, and some who had never worked on ocean sensors before. That, of course, was what the team at XPrize hoped might happen.

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“We have all these ideas about how prizes can be super impactful, transform communities, and that really the purse is only a small part of it,” says Bunje. “But when you’re designing and running a prize, there’s a fear that you’re not going to get those things. Part of the enthusiasm you hear in my voice today is that those things are happening…It’s a validation of markets being picked up. Two years from now, what you’re going to see in terms of the sensors–as well as the community of innovators working on ocean chemistry–I’m now confident that it’s going to be exponentially greater than today.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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