- Associated Press - Monday, February 16, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - There’s a new tank at the Seattle Aquarium, but it’s not populated by rockfish, anemones or other sea creatures.

Tucked out of public view on an open-air dock, the tank contains an array of metal cylinders and other gadgets suspended by wires in water circulating from Puget Sound.

The devices represent the hopes of 14 teams from around the world competing to build better ocean pH sensors - and take home $2?million in prize money.

It’s part of the latest initiative from the XPrize Foundation, best known for its attempts to revitalize space travel through high-profile contests. But since a team funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen took home the $10 million Ansari XPrize for suborbital flight in 2004, the foundation has branched into other fields, including ocean health.

One of the biggest threats to the world’s oceans is chemical changes that occur when carbon dioxide from power plants, cars and other human activity dissolves in the water, making it more acidic, said Paul Bunje, director of the Ocean Health XPrize competition.

But measuring those changes is challenging, and existing instruments are expensive and temperamental.

So the Ocean XPrize was launched to catalyze development of cheaper and more reliable alternatives. Out of a field of 77 entrants, the teams that made the first cut subjected their designs to a round of laboratory shakedowns in California. Beginning Feb. 7, the remaining 14 contestant groups carted their gear to Seattle for a monthlong test to determine how well the sensors perform in the fluctuating conditions of Puget Sound.

“Washington is really ground zero for ocean-acidification research and response,” Bunje said last week, as XPrize staffers lowered the last of the instruments into the 3,000-gallon tank.

Seattle-based scientists were among the first to study the phenomenon. Oyster growers on the Washington coast were among the first to feel its effects when a spike in acidity started killing larvae in hatcheries.

Since the start of the industrial age, the average pH at the ocean surface has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1, said Chris Sabine, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle and a technical adviser for the competition. That doesn’t sound like much, but it translates into a 30 percent increase in acidity. The trend is expected to intensify in the coming years as oceans absorb more CO2.

No one knows what the impact will be on marine life, but scientists have already documented damage to tiny, shelled creatures at the base of the food chain. Some commercially important species, like crab, may also be vulnerable.

With all the technology available for measuring pool and hot-tub chemistry, it seems like tracking changes in pH would be easy. “People say: ‘Why is this a problem? I can buy a pH sensor on eBay for 75 bucks,’?” Sabine said.

But it’s very difficult to track subtle shifts over long periods of time - and across a wide range of ocean conditions and depths. Instruments that can do the job cost $20,000 to $30,000 and require constant upkeep, which means only a few scientists are able to deploy them.

“The idea behind the XPrize is that if we can get a very accurate, robust sensor that is much less expensive, then we can give them to everybody,” Sabine said. “People walking down the beach could stick their sensors in the ocean and type the results into a Web page.”

In that spirit, one of the teams designed its instrument to fit in the fin of a surfboard. Another team is made up of a group of teenagers from Carmel, Calif., managed by the mother of three team members. William Barrow, from Cambridge, England, works for the oil- and gas-industry giant Schlumberger, but he and his partners cobbled together their entry at the last minute, in their free time.

“It was a real rush,” he said, as he prepared to deploy his sensor. “None of us do this full time.”

Their sensor is based on solid-state technology originally developed for oil-field applications, so it’s able to stand up to extreme pressures and temperatures, Barrow said.

Jim Beck, CEO of Sunburst Sensors in Missoula, Mont., was a little more nervous about his entry’s durability. “It’s highly accurate,” he said, peering into the tank. “But there are a lot of moving parts.”

Throughout the Seattle tests, NOAA biologist Remy Okazaki - whose salary is being paid by the XPrize Foundation - will use the current gold-standard technology to regularly measure the pH of the water being pumped through the tank. That data will be used as the yardstick against which to measure the performance of the 17 instruments on trial.

Some teams are fielding multiple entries, because the competition has two categories. Half the prize money will go to the two teams with the most accurate, rugged and stable sensors. (First place gets $750,000; second gets $250,000.) The other million will be divided between the two teams that develop the least expensive, reliable instruments.

The project is being funded by philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, wife of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

After Seattle, the next stop for the competition is Hawaii, where the instruments will be tested in water up to 10,000 feet deep. The winners will be selected in May.

“Even if we don’t find the perfect sensor, I have no doubt that we will learn from what the teams have done and come up with improved sensors in the end,” Sabine said.


Information from: The Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com

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