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From Surfers to Scientists: Ocean Health XPrize Competitors Begin Lab Trials

Krista Almanzan
Credit Krista Almanzan
Benjamin Thompson shows what Boardformula's smart fin looks like on the inside.
Credit Krista Almanzan
MBARI's Ken Johnson stands in his lab. He's on Team DuraFET.

As CO2 emissions increase, so will ocean acidification.  The problem happens when the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the seawater’s pH level drops.  It’s already harming oyster hatcheries and coral reefs. 

A solution could begin with the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize, an international competition for the development of accurate and affordable pH sensors.   Lab trials for the prize are underway in Moss Landing at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

That’s where Ken Johnson is a Senior Scientist.  He’s also an Ocean Health XPrize competitor.  Johnson’s work on ocean acidification  goes back nearly 40 years to when he was a grad student, so he understands the challenges.

First, he says pH is a really tough to measure.  “To do pH as precisely and as accurately as you need to do to understand ocean acidification requires a really exquisitely sensitive, stable sensor,” says Johnson.

And up until recently, he says getting a measurement meant a two week journey by ship to the southern ocean,  the area most effected by ocean acidification .  “There aren’t enough ships.  They go too slow and they ocean is too big,” says Johnson

In recent years he and fellow researchers have found a better way.  In his lab he points out a tall, cylindrical device equipped with all sorts of sensors. Once dropped in the ocean, it sends back data via satellite. 

“They go from 2000 meters, over a mile deep.  They ascend to the surface measuring things like oxygen, pH, temperature, salinity,” says Johnson.

The pH sensor on the device is called DuraFET.  It was originally designed by Honeywell to run in a factory.  Johnson is part of a team that redesigned it to make it work in the ocean.

And now Team DuraFET is one of 18 teams in the running for the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize.  It’s a $2-million purse: $1-million for the most accurate sensor,  and $1-million for the most affordable.

Paul Bunje is with the XPrize Foundation, the non-profit runs competitions designed to bring technological breakthroughs that benefit humanity.  He says the affordability component is important because ultimately pH sensors need to be accessible to everyone.

“People that need to know what the pH is in their local water, so if they’re an oyster hatchery they can turn the more acidic water when it starts to come,” says Bunje.

Bunje says the competition has attracted established experts, but it’s also brought in people he calls “out of the box thinkers”, like a team of food science researchers from Ohio State University.

“Getting the pH just right is very important for yogurt, beer or anything else.  And they’ve been working on technology for measuring pH for those purposes, but saw this competition and decided that they have a really novel way of doing this,” says Bunje.

Another out of the box entry comes from Benjamin Thompson, founder of Boardformula, a start-up funded by the Lost Bird Project.

Thompson is the structural engineer and a surfer behind the smart fin.  “So the smart fin it looks like a normal surfboard fin and you use it like a normal surfboard fin,” says Thompson. 

Except unlike a normal fin, the smart fin has sensors in it that essential can turn every surfer into a buoy.  It tracks things like waves, temperature and pH.   And once the surfer is out of the water the data uploads to Boardformula’s server.

“Our goal is to have a massive public database of near real time data,” says Thompson.

Team Boardformula is competing the affordability category.  While Team DuraFET, which has three variations of its sensor in XPrize competition is competing in both. 

“If we don’t do well with our device in the competition, that will actually be a good thing because it will turn out that there is going to be some really, super-duper great new sensor.  So it can only be good for ocean science,” says Johnson.

Teams that make it past the three month lab trials move on to coastal trails in February then the deep sea finals in June. 

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.