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$2 million awarded to companies helping to monitor harmful ocean acidification

The XPRIZE Foundation announced the winners of its Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health competition.

XPRIZE Foundation

Team Sunburst Sensors won $1,500,000 tonight from the XPRIZE Foundation for developing the most accurate and most affordable sensor technology for measuring ocean acidification. Sunburst Sensors won both of the grand prize purses for affordability and accuracy — worth $750,000 each. Team ANB Sensors took home the second place prize for affordability, receiving $250,000, and Team Durafet was awarded the second place prize for accuracy, also receiving $250,000.

The XPRIZE Foundation aims to cultivate technologies that fulfill a beneficial need for humanity

Sunburst Sensors LLC is a small Montana-based company that makes sensors for marine and freshwater applications. Their products work by drawing in water samples and then mixing them with purified dyes. The sensor then shines a laser on the mixture to determine the water’s pH. It’s a process known as spectrophotometry — a way of figuring out the structure of a substance by measuring its capacity to absorb light.

James Beck, CEO of Sunburst Sensors, says the double win came as a complete surprise, and he's excited to put the funds toward developing new technology. "We're a 10-person company, so we don't have the resources of a lot of these teams," said Beck. "So we're going to be able to do some things we haven't been able to do."

The XPRIZE Foundation is a nonprofit that hopes to foster innovation and technology development through public competitions. The organization aims to cultivate technologies that fulfill a beneficial need for humanity.

The contests offer monetary rewards from backers including Google and Qualcomm to people who create the best technology that fits within each competition’s guidelines. The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE tasked teams with developing the most accurate and most affordable technologies for measuring widespread ocean acidification — a problem that has grown substantially during the 21st century.

James Beck is the CEO of Sunburst Sensors, LLC. (XPRIZE Foundation)

The problem

The competition was launched in 2013 as a way to address decreasing pH levels in the world's oceans. This ocean acidification is a byproduct of more and more carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere each year. Around a quarter of added carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean and forms carbonic acid. This influx of carbonic acid changes the chemistry of the oceans, resulting in more acidic waters.

The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii estimated that at the start of 2015, the global concentration of CO2 reached a total of 400 parts per million (ppm) — the highest levels in recorded history. And the higher these levels increase, the more acidic our oceans get. Scientists estimate that since 1800, 48 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions stemming from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture have dissolved into the oceans. For the past 300 million years, the ocean’s pH has averaged out to 8.2. Today’s average hovers around 8.1, resulting in a loss of .1 pH. That small factor translates into a 30 percent increase of ocean acidity.

It’s not just CO2, either. Another phenomenon called coastal acidification is also a growing concern. That occurs when nutrient-dense pollution — such as sewage or fertilizers— runs off into coastal waters, causing large blooms of algae. Microorganisms then feast on this algae — sucking up oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide at the same time. This also lowers pH levels.

A sea butterfly (pteropod) shell placed in increasingly acidic seawater slowly dissolves over 45 days. (David Littschwager / National Geographic Society)

Of course, raising the ocean’s acidity harms sea life. Numerous species of plants and animals build their shells and skeletons out of a chalk-like compound called calcium carbonate, but acidic waters actively break down this important ingredient. "This is everything from scallops and clams to corals and lots of different types of plankton you’ve never heard of," Scott Doney, chair of the marine chemistry and geochemistry department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, tells The Verge. "Acidic conditions make it harder for those organisms to build their shells. It’s still possible, but the plant or animal has to devote more energy to it."

Because shell production is more energy-intensive, younger shellfish are having a tougher time growing — and surviving. It's a trend that's causing widespread deaths of marine plant and animal life, endangering coastal communities that rely heavily on these creatures as a source of food. Acidification’s effects also devastate the livelihoods of more than 470 million people working in the seafood industry, which is starting to experience lower yields of fish and other marine life. "Oyster hatchery businesses on the West Coast in Oregon and Washington state, they saw their stocks basically collapse," says Doney. "The water was too acidic that they were bringing into the hatcheries."

Testing the XPRIZE teams' sensors (XPRIZE Foundation)

A better thermometer

Regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency are working to cut carbon emissions by placing new standards on the fossil fuel and automobile industries — big producers of CO2. But marine communities and businesses still need to determine just how acidic the oceans in their regions have become. The traditional way of figuring this out is laborious and time-consuming: You must go out to sea, collect small samples, and send them to a lab for processing. This is both expensive and ineffective at providing wide-scale measurements, according to Doney. Current methods also mostly analyze waters at the ocean's surface, leaving deep sea pH levels unmeasured.

The world's oceans are sick, and we don’t have a very good thermometer

In other words, the world's oceans are sick, and we don’t have a very good thermometer. That makes it incredibly difficult to know which waters are the most affected. "Without the measurements, we’re sort of blind," Doney says. "It’s very hard to manage something that you don’t measure."

That piqued the XPRIZE Foundation’s interest. Paul Bunje, senior director of the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, said the organization saw a critical need for affordable technologies that can measure ocean pH in real time. "The tiniest amount of change in pH can mean the difference between life and death," says Bunje. "If your blood pH changes that much, it’s the difference between life and death."

Bunje says the competition was meant to capitalize on emerging sensor technologies that can provide accurate results without the need of extensive lab analysis. Many of the submitted sensors use existing pH-measuring technology, such as measuring the water's electrical potential or chemical compositions. But the sensors needed to be incorporated into designs that could be used easily out at sea and survive deep ocean depths.

The nonprofit also wanted to foster the production of not only accurate sensors, but ones that can be purchased much more cheaply. "Current technologies can cost upwards of $15,000, so that’s a lot. If you're going deep sea, it’s not the device you're going to buy," says Bunje. "The affordability purse had a threshold cost of $1,000; that’s very low. There, we awarded a significant number of points the cheaper you got below that level."

The five finalist teams (XPRIZE Foundation)

After a year and a half, the XPRIZE Foundation was able to slim down the 24 teams to five finalists hailing from four different countries. The finalists had to endure various stages of real-world testing, including tests of their sensors in coastal waters as well as the daunting final stage: the deep sea trials. In May, all five teams boarded the R/V Kilo Moana, a US Navy research ship, and sailed off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii. There, the sensors were submerged to a depth of 1.87 miles to see if they could withstand 300 atmospheres of pressure and still provide accurate results.

Though Sunburst Sensors took home both of the grand prizes, Bunje says the real winners of the competition are those involved in the ocean community. Now, a once-sparse technological domain has a diverse range of sensor technologies for marine biologists, oceanographers, and others to exploit.

"We're proving there’s a lot more ingenuity out there that wants to be applied to these problems," says Bunje. "There is real value in creating even better devices, and there are markets for it. Aquariums and small science centers have been calling us up constantly, asking us, 'When are these technologies going to be ready?'"