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Inventing an “Easy Button” for Ocean Acidification Measurements

Posted On July 28, 2015 by

Measuring ocean acidification is tough — we can’t see it, and we have to use specialized instruments to measure it properly. Scientists use specialized laboratories to make the most accurate chemistry measurements of deep ocean waters. Worse, even the most affordable instruments to get this data still costs tens of thousands of dollars. This makes life difficult for shellfish growers, marine resource managers, and decision-makers who are trying to monitor ocean acidification and protect businesses, fisheries and local communities.

But these measurement hurdles are shrinking. Over the past two years, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE has hosted a competition for teams to develop devices that could most accurately or affordably detect ocean acidification conditions. In these two categories, 77 very different teams comprised of surfers, teenagers, and the more predictable engineers and scientists from around the world entered the competition. This video chronicles one team’s struggle to meet the competition deadlines and pass the performance tests, as well as how excited engineers get when making complicated gizmos.

Finally on Monday, XPRIZE announced Sunburst Sensors of Missoula, Montana as the 1st place winner for their t-SAMI device in the accuracy category, and their i-SAMI device in the affordability category. Accuracy was judged by how close each device’s pH readings were to tests made with complicated lab equipment, and how consistent readings were over time. Each device was subjected to a battery of tests to measure pH in coastal waters and waters nearly two miles deep. Affordability was more straightforwardly judged: the device with the lowest manufacturing costs and all-around usability and accuracy took the prize (the i-SAMI costs less than $1,000 to make).

These advances in both accurately and affordably measuring pH may seem small, but it’s major progress. By comparison, the gold standard of ocean acidification monitoring requires a full-blown laboratory equipped with sensors that cost between $20,000 and $30,000 each. XPRIZE’s winning devices will really make it easier for scientists, managers, and businesses to better understand our ocean and what threatens it. That will directly help us make more smart decisions about how to protect the ocean and its creatures.