The Validation Team: Adrienne Sutton and Remy Okazaki (l),  Richard Feely and Chris Sabine (r).
The Validation Team: Adrienne Sutton and Remy Okazaki (l), Richard Feely and Chris Sabine (r).

Sunburst Sensors, based out of Missoula, MT, grabbed the two top spots in the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, receiving a $1.5 million award for advancing scientist’s ability to measure ocean chemistry as it relates to ocean acidification. Designed as a competition to spur innovation, teams from around the globe competed to develop the most promising technologies in two categories: a device that is easy to use and cost effective and a device that is highly accurate when tracking ocean acidification. The winners took part in an award ceremony in New York City in late July.

The XPRIZE also awarded 2nd place prizes of $250,000 in each of the categories; Team Durafet placed for accuracy, and ANB Sensors placed for affordability. Team Durafet, a consortium lead by Honeywell, will donate their winnings to the UW School of Oceanography to enable pH observations on the Argo profiling floats regularly deployed around the world.

Judges determined the winners based on several criteria, but a critical component was how well the devices measured ocean pH, or the level of acidity in the water. Adrienne Sutton and Remy Okazaki, both chemical oceanographers in the College of the Environment’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean—a collaboration between the University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—led the validation team that provided the true values that all the teams’ sensors were measured against.

Sutton and Okazaki were responsible for knowing the water chemistry where each team’s device was operating. Along with their colleagues at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, this renowned group of chemical oceanographers uses unique instrumentation and methods to measure the precise pH of water.

“The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE has provided the unique opportunity to fast track pH sensor technology,” says Sutton. “We were honored to be a part of it and look forward to the impact it will have on ocean acidification observing.”

Various sensors from the XPRIZE participants taking data in a saltwater tank.
Steven Haddock
Various sensors from the XPRIZE competition taking data in a saltwater tank.

Teams from around the world participated in the competition, which took place in four major phases—an innovation phase, lab trials at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, coastal trials at the Seattle Aquarium, and ocean trials off the coast of Hawaii. The contraptions each team put forward were as varied as the teams themselves: high schoolers created a device where you could peer inside and see the inner workings; a team from San Diego developed a surfboard fin that measures pH while riding the waves; and a team of engineers developed the only hybrid model in the competition, containing two types of sensors.

In total, 25 teams began the competition for the top prize, ending with the top five contenders onboard the research cruise out of Hawaii to test their instruments deep in the ocean. Going through the competitive process to determine the winning teams was at times a grueling process for everyone involved, including the validation team.

“The biggest challenge of this competition was running multiple experiments at different sites on a short timeframe.  For example, while testing sensors at the Seattle Aquarium, we were analyzing results from MBARI and planning the Hawaii deep sea tests,” says Okazaki.

Ocean acidification has been getting more attention in recent years, as this phenomenon is expected to have big effects on ocean ecosystems. Driven by rising carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, the chemistry of the world’s oceans is changing and becoming more acidic. This is a problem for all marine animals that make shells, as well as the animals and people that are dependent on them.

Participants in the XPRIZE gather to watch their instruments deployed off the coast of Hawaii.
Remy Okazaki
Participants in the XPRIZE gather as their instruments are deployed off the coast of Hawaii.

Tracking how this problem is emerging across the globe is a huge task, one that is limited by scientists’ ability to take numerous and precise measurements in many different locations. As it stands now, existing ocean acidification sensors are extremely expensive, and getting an accurate read on the ocean’s chemistry requires highly trained technicians using sophisticated protocols. All these things make the onset of ocean acidification difficult to track, and therefore difficult to come up with mediation strategies that will help ease this insidious threat.

The XPRIZE on Ocean Health was designed to alleviate some of those pressures, making inexpensive and easy to use devices a centerpiece in their effort to advance ocean acidification science. Gauging by the winners announced in New York, we appear to be well on our way, with JISAO scientists and the Carbon Group playing a major role.

To learn more about ocean acidification and how the College of the Environment is confronting the challenge, check out our ocean acidification webpage. To read more about the XPRIZE winners, visit the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE website.