Missoula company gets $2.5M grant for sensors to study ocean

Already bobbing in waters around the globe, the high-tech sensors developed by a Missoula company have now been commissioned to be part of a long-term study on the changing chemical makeup of the world’s oceans.

Mike DeGrandpre’s groundbreaking advances in analytical chemistry at the University of Montana have landed his company – Sunburst Sensors – a $2.5 million National Science Foundation contract announced Friday.

During the next three years, more than 100 of Sunburst’s Submersible Autonomous Moored Instruments, or SAMIs, will be sent into the oceans as part of the 30-year Ocean Observatories Initiative.

The instruments were developed to test and collect in-depth data on pH and carbon dioxide levels in water.

DeGrandpre took his research into the private sector by starting Sunburst in 1999, but still works as a UM chemistry professor. His business partner, Jim Beck, a mechanical engineer who joined the company in 2005, has helped move the product forward and runs the company full time.

“It is a big deal. It’s nice that we came through with it. We’ve really made a lot of progress over the past several years in proving our work and getting national recognition,” Beck said. “It’s going to be a lot of work. There will be some growing pains, but we’re definitely excited we were chosen for this.”

Sunburst Sensors are sold internationally. The company makes about 40 each year for oceanographers and for water-based research throughout the world.


Beck said securing the National Science Foundation contract was a rigorous process.

The National Science Foundation is helping fund the Ocean Observatories Initiative, which will work for 25 to 30 years studying things like the ocean carbon cycle and ocean acidification.

The majority of Sunburst’s SAMIs will be moored off coastal North America, measuring pH and the amount of dissolved carbon dioxide in bodies of water.

“Ocean acidification” has become a focus of research in recent years as bodies of water absorb the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide released into the air.

The pH and carbon dioxide testing technique and chemistry principles used in the SAMIs aren’t new or overly advanced, DeGrandpre said. But the packaging, pressure housing system and its sensor information system allow it to collect data in a more advanced, accurate way.

Sea water is traditionally trapped by ships, brought on board and tested. The SAMIs, however, are sent to drift in the ocean, their sensors providing continuous, accurate data.

“We can look at small changes in levels from more time and across more space,” DeGrandpre said.

Most testing is done near the ocean’s surface, but the SAMIs can also be mounted on platforms and lowered far into the water to test pH and carbon dioxide levels at different depths. The new units will be equipped with satellite transmitters that will feed real-time data back to scientists.

All that data will be published and could be used not only for furthering knowledge about the oceans, but to advance the technology, DeGrandpre said.

The SAMIs costs around $22,000 each – “It’s like buying a Honda Civic,” DeGrandpre said.


Sunburst’s $2.5 milllion contract calls for the production of 110 sensors. Whilte that won’t quite double production, the new contract will require Sunburst to hire new staff members. The company already employs a lab technician, two engineers, a research scientist and an accountant.

“It’s a big thing for Missoula,” DeGrandpre said. “We’ll be hiring. We just don’t really know (how many). We haven’t scaled up to this level before.”

UM has licensing agreements with Sunburst, but isn’t granted royalties from the business’ contracts.

DeGrandpre works with university graduate students on sensor research, and has modified and advanced the technology using grants throughout the years.

He conducts his own research in the freshwater of Montana.

Sunburst proved it can compete and thrive in its small market even before securing the $2.5 million contract. But DeGrandpre said the real feather in his cap is that fact that the company’s technology was sought by the Oceans Observatories Initiative.

“Not getting it financially wouldn’t be devastating. But oceanographers know our company; if we didn’t get it, that would signal our technology isn’t the best,” he said.

Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at jenna.cederberg@missoulian.com.

Jenna Cederberg, Missoulian, 10 February 2012. Article.

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