$2-million X prize seeks new sensors to study ocean acidification

Scientists who study ocean acidification must confront a fundamental problem: it is hard to measure exactly by how much the ocean’s pH is changing. Today’s sensors don’t work well at depth or over long periods of time, and they are too expensive to deploy widely. That is where the US$2-million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize comes in.

The 22-month competition will award two $1 million prizes, one  to the best low-cost sensor and one to the most accurate. The competition’s organizers decided to award two prizes because the two goals present different engineering challenges. Registration opens on 1 January 2014.

As carbon dioxide levels rise in the atmosphere, ocean water takes up some of the gas and becomes more acidic. This can harm shell-building marine life such as coral, whose calcium carbonate skeletons dissolve in the increasingly acidic water. All of this research is bedeviled by the simple lack of technology to monitor ocean pH in real time across the world.

“I’m so excited for the potential of this prize because then we will have real understanding,” said Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in an announcement broadcast today on Huffington Post Live.

This is the second collaboration between the X Prize Foundation of California and Wendy Schmidt, who co-founded the Schmidt Ocean Institute with her husband Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. In 2011, the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge awarded $1.4 million to projects cleaning up oil spills.

As Nature reported in March, Schmidt and her institute — which launched the private research ship Falkor — are stepping in to replace dwindling public research funds. The X Prize is also meant to attract entrepreneurs and tinkerers who may be outside the traditional science research complex.

The X Prize Foundation’s best-known competitions have involved space, such as the Ansari X Prize competition to design commercial spacecraft and the Google Lunar X Prize to explore the Moon. The group had to cancel its genome-sequencing competition earlier this year after receiving only two entries. Critics said the sequencing industry was competitive enough that an X prize didn’t provide much additional incentive.

Sarah Zhang, Nature News Blog, 9 September 2013. Article.

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