September 11, 2014

MBARI hosts Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE competition

Members from the National Oceanography Centre (UK) XPRIZE team

Members of a team from the National Oceanography Centre (UK) prepare their pH sensor for the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE competition in a staging area at MBARI. They are one of 18 teams from around the world competing for $2 million in prize money. Image: Kim Fulton-Bennett (c) 2014 MBARI.

Over the last one hundred years, humans burning coal, oil, and gas have released hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere. About one half of this carbon dioxide has dissolved in the oceans. This is causing the oceans to become more acidic, with possibly devastating effects on corals and many other marine organisms.

Perhaps surprisingly, most oceanographers do not have access to instruments that can measure the acidity (pH) of the ocean precisely and continuously for long periods of time. Existing methods for measuring the pH of seawater either require hand processing of each sample or are very expensive, costing thousands of dollars. Even the more expensive instruments require frequent recalibration and do not work well in the extreme pressure of the deep sea.

To address this problem, Wendy Schmidt, president of The Schmidt Family Foundation, has partnered with the XPRIZE Foundation to create the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, a global competition that challenges teams to design robust pH sensors that can accurately and affordably measure ocean acidification. The first two testing phases of the competition are being held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) from September to December of 2014.

Since the competition was first announced in September 2013, 18 teams from all over the world have qualified to compete for two prize purses: a $1 million accuracy purse, based on instrument performance, and a $1 million affordability purse, based on instrument cost and usability. All of the systems will be evaluated for accuracy, precision, stability, affordability, and ease of use. They must also function down to 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet) below the ocean surface.

The competition involves four testing phases, each of which is more challenging than the previous:

  1. The first phase, which will take place in MBARI’s seawater lab, involves testing the basic accuracy of each competing instrument. During this phase, judges will compare measurements from each competing device with measurements made by the best existing laboratory method for determining the pH of seawater.
  2. During the second phase, the competing instruments will be placed in MBARI’s 1,420,000-liter test tank for about two and a half months. Measurements will be taken several times each day to determine the accuracy and consistency of each competing instrument. The instruments must be left in the water continuously during this test, and may not be recalibrated.
  3. In early February 2015, those instruments that survive the lab and tank trials will be further tested in a real-life coastal setting. In this dynamic environment, the sensors will be subjected to natural variation in pH due to winds, tides, currents, and runoff. They will also have to resist being smothered by algae and animals that grow rapidly on instruments in near-surface waters.
  4. The last testing phase will take place in May 2015 in the open ocean. During this test, each instrument must take a series of pH measurements from the sea surface down to a depth of 3,000 meters. As before, these measurements will be compared against reference samples analyzed on board a boat using the best available laboratory techniques.
Members of Team HpHS (Japan) for XPRIZE competition

Members of Team HpHS from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) prepare their pH sensor for the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE competition in MBARI’s seawater lab. Image: Kim Fulton-Bennett (c) 2014 MBARI.

The competition will be overseen by a panel of independent judges, who will make sure that all the entrants follow the prize guidelines and rules. The judges will also review the data collected during all the tests and select the winners in each prize category.

The long-term goal of the competition is not simply to identify new sensors, but also to inspire investment in research. As Paul Bunje, senior director of oceans at XPRIZE Foundation has said, “For every XPRIZE so far, the amount of money invested in winning the prize has been five to ten times the prize itself.”

Marine chemists are not the only ones who will benefit from the development of reliable and affordable ocean-pH measuring systems. Such instruments could also be useful for fishing and aquaculture industries, as well as for governmental agencies. Being able to repeatedly and confidently measure ocean acidification will, in the words of the XPRIZE committee, allow businesses and society as a whole to “anticipate, adapt to, and mitigate ongoing changes to the chemistry of the oceans.”

Eventually, ocean researchers and resource managers may be able to tap into a worldwide network of pH sensors, just as meteorologists currently use a worldwide network of weather stations to monitor global warming. This is why affordability is one of the most important criteria for the competition. As Bunje noted in an interview with Scientific American, “These sensors need to be deployed globally, including in places like developing countries.”

MBARI is excited to be part of this groundbreaking effort, which aligns precisely with Founder David Packard’s original charge for the institute—to develop new instruments, systems, and methods for studying the ocean.

For additional information or images relating to this article, please contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett