Montana’s Sunburst Sensors Wins Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE Tackling Ocean Acidification

A small team of scientists and engineers from Missoula, Montana, were awarded $1.5 million for breakthrough ocean pH sensors.

Image Credit: NOAA

Image Credit: NOAA

What’s better motivation than a big prize? That’s the thinking of the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, a global competition that offered $2 million to teams of scientists and engineers to create innovative, affordable, and accurate technology to improve our understanding of a serious ecological problem: the changing chemistry of the ocean.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, surface ocean water has become approximately 30 percent more acidic. Ocean acidification (a recent Earthzine theme) is occurring because high amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are being absorbed by seawater, forming carbonic acid. This is a big problem for shellfish, corals, other calcifying organisms, and humans.

The Ocean Health XPRIZE, seeking to catalyze the invention of better pH sensors to study ocean acidification, kicked off in September 2013. After 22 months of development and multiple phases of rigorous testing, from the lab to the deep sea, winners of the competition were announced on July 20, 2015, at an award ceremony in New York City.

The grand prize was awarded in two different purses: Accuracy and Affordability, each with a $750,000 first prize and a $250,000 second prize. Winning first in both areas was Sunburst Sensors, a small business based in Missoula, Montana, that develops chemical sensors for marine and freshwater applications.

The Kilo Moana is a research vessel that was used for the final stages of the Ocean Health XPRIZE. Image Credit: University of Hawaii

The Kilo Moana is a research vessel that was used for the final stages of the Ocean Health XPRIZE. Image Credit: University of Hawaii

The team, of CEO James Beck, co-owner Mike DeGrandpre, and three other members, entered two separate instruments, both based on an existing company product, the SAMI-pH (Submersible Autonomous Moored Instrument). The i-SAMI-pH (the ‘i’ standing for ‘inexpensive’) was entered to compete for affordability, and the t-SAMI-pH (the ‘t’ for ‘titanium’) was entered for accuracy.

These sensors use an autonomous spectrophotometric system that takes in a sample of seawater, mixes it with special purified dyes, and then shines a laser through the mixture to obtain a highly precise pH measurement. The i-SAMI-pH, which Sunburst is now developing into a refined commercial product, has a projected per-unit cost of less than $1,000 (10 to 15 times cheaper than other sensors with similar capabilities). The t-SAMI-pH, according to XPRIZE, “demonstrated unprecedented accuracy – accuracy as good as a fully equipped professional laboratory” up to 3,000 meters beneath the ocean surface.

“We were somewhat optimistic that we could at least place second in one of the purses – but had no expectation of winning both,” Beck told the Missoulian.

Beck and his team are an example of how innovation can sometimes come from unexpected places.

“One of the challenges of doing chemical oceanography 480 miles from the ocean is getting seawater,” Beck says. He recalls wading out in the Puget Sound while on family vacation in Seattle to fill a jug to take all the way back to Montana for testing. At the award ceremony, the CEO of XPRIZE, Peter Diamandis, remarked, “Incentive competitions are a means by which you say, ‘I don’t know who in the world, I don’t know where in the world, but somewhere, someone can solve this problem.’”

The second place prizes were awarded to two different teams. ANB Sensors from Cambridge, England, took second in Affordability. Team DuraFET, comprised of experts from Honeywell, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, won second for Accuracy.

Wendy Schmidt, who helped create the Ocean Health XPRIZE, celebrates the leap that this competition has proven to be in the gathering of data on ocean acidification. In a recent contribution to the Huffington Post, she writes, “In applying our technical expertise to the ocean, it’s possible to get good quality data and more of it. Armed with that information, we will be better equipped to address the many other challenges the ocean is facing … with more data, we will be able to understand, and with that understanding, we can help the oceans. And in helping the oceans, we will be helping the planet – and ourselves.”

You can vote on future XPRIZE competitions or submit your own prize idea here.