Sep. 9, 2013 at 12:57 AM ET
The tools that scientists use to monitor the acidification of the world's oceans are expected to get a major upgrade, thanks to a $2 million competition aimed at rewarding innovations that lower the cost and improve the accuracy of chemical sensors.
The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize, unveiled Monday, is the latest multimillion-dollar prize program conducted by the California-based X Prize Foundation. Past prizes have targeted technologies ranging from commercial spaceflight to energy-efficient cars — but the latest prize focuses on an even bigger global issue: climate change.
The world's open oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, with potentially devastating consequences for coral reefs, shellfish, and the more than 1 billion people who depend on seafood for survival, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"It is only in the last decade where scientists have begun to study ocean acidification, so our knowledge is really limited still," Paul Bunje, a senior director with the X Prize Foundation who is the lead scientist behind the ocean health competition, told NBC News.
"But we do know that we don't know enough, and we don't have the tools needed to even begin to measure it sufficiently — much less to begin to respond, to adapt to it, to implement local policies that might allow ocean acidification to be less harmful," he said.
Just as the $10 million Ansari X Prize spurred innovation in the private space industry, the Ocean Health X Prize aims to jump-start new business ventures dedicated to sensors that can dramatically improve understanding of the oceans, including acidification.
The open ocean is acidifying at about .02 pH units per decade, according to according to Richard Feeley, a marine scientist and leading researcher on ocean acidification at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. "That means that you have to have an instrument that you can rely on to be both precise and accurate for a very, very long period of time, so that you can actually see that signal," he told NBC News.
He hopes the competition yields instruments he can deploy in the open ocean for years at a time. The best tools available today, Bunje noted, cost around $25,000, require constant recalibration, and function only near the ocean surface.
The prize is sponsored by Wendy Schmidt, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation and wife of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. She already has a previous X Prize competition to her name: the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, which awarded $1.3 million in prizes to two teams in 2011.
The 22-month ocean health competition will award $1 million to the team that engineers a low-cost pH sensor that's at least as accurate as current instruments, and another $1 million to the team that builds the most accurate sensor with materials that cost less than $10,000.
The foundation is offering two prizes instead of one, because the engineering solutions that provide high accuracy tend to require more expensive materials than that low-cost solutions that can put tools in the hands of millions of people, Bunje explained.
"Now, if a team comes up with the ability to be the most accurate and the most affordable at the same time — Holy Grail, that's phenomenal," he said. "We are leaving the door open for that to exactly happen."
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.