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Acid Test
The growing acidity of earth’s oceans threatens biodiversity and the worldwide food web. XPRIZE is offering $2 million for a way to track the problem.

Book-length grant applications, faculty review committees, tenure-track requirements—my eyes glaze over just thinking about what many scientists have to endure to pursue their research goals. Which is why the story of XPRIZE is so interesting. XPRIZE is a nonprofit that believes in incentivizing scientific breakthroughs. In other words, the organization picks a problem, throws a stack of money on the table for the first person to solve it, and then drops the mic.

Today, XPRIZE announced its latest incentive, the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE for development of a better ocean acidity tracker. Why is tracking acid worth so much? Because something like a quarter of all the carbon dioxide we pump out each year through power plant emissions, tailpipes, and the like ends up in the oceans. Once there, CO2 disrupts the oceans’ chemical balance and makes our seas more acidic—bad news for many life forms like bivalves and corals. (See “The Great Oyster Crash” for OnEarth’s coverage of how increased acidity could devastate the Pacific Northwest oyster industry, for instance.)

Unfortunately, the acidity sensors currently available are prohibitively expensive, which means that when scientists try to track the changes to the ocean’s pH, they’re looking at a dramatically incomplete picture. Better sensors would allow us to monitor some of the planet’s most at-risk ecosystems and, potentially, develop better ways of combating or adapting to acidification. So basically, XPRIZE just put a $2 million bounty on saving the world.

But then, that’s just how the XPRIZE rolls. The first prize of $10 million was awarded in 2004 after Mojave Aerospace Ventures successfully shot a 3-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space—twice. (The Ansari XPRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight was announced in 1996, so teams had been working on the project for nearly a decade before someone collected the bounty.) In 2010, three teams split $10 million for winning the Progressive Insurance XPRIZE—they created alternative energy vehicles with miles per gallon equivalents of 102.5, 187, and 205.3. There are also several ongoing challenges, including the Google Lunar XPRIZE for getting a rover to the moon and the Tricorder XPRIZE for creating a mobile health diagnostic tool like the one in Star Trek. With the addition of this newest competition, there are currently four XPRIZES up for grabs.

Wendy Schmidt

The ocean health competition will be the second sponsored by Wendy Schmidt. In 2011, she footed the bill for the successful Oil Cleanup XCHALLENGE, which eventually shelled out $1.4 million in prizes. The winner devised a way to soak up petroleum nearly four times faster than the industry had ever seen.

So who is this Wendy Schmidt, mysterious benefactor of the oceans? Well, she has made a name for herself as a crusader for renewable energy and the conservation of natural resources. She’s not only a co-founder of Climate Central and The 11th Hour Project, but she also serves on the boards of nearly a dozen organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, which publishes OnEarth. She’s also president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, and Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, is her husband.

“Ocean acidification is a serious threat we are only beginning to understand,” Wendy Schmidt said in a press release announcing the new XPRIZE. “It could have significant ecological and societal implications, changing the health of entire ecosystems, affecting the global economy and the biodiversity of the planet. As we did with the Oil Cleanup XCHALLENGE, we aim to inspire innovators around the world to get behind the creation of better, more efficient methods to monitor and measure ocean health, and ultimately improve it.”

Unlike some of the other XPRIZE competitions, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE will only be open for 22 months—perhaps because the need for better ocean sensors is urgent in a way that lunar exploration is not. Participants have a shot at two prizes of $1,000,000. One will be awarded for accuracy and another for affordability. And if your ocean acidity sensor is the most accurate and affordable, then you might just take home both prizes. (And I might just call you a showoff.)

Personally, I hope the whole incentivized science thing catches on. For one, it may give scientists a reason to work on projects that would have been ignored otherwise. And wouldn’t it be cool if celebrities started ponying up some cash and validating their existence? The Miley Cyrus XPRIZE for Third World Sanitation. The Charlie Sheen XPRIZE for HIV Research. Hey, it could happen.

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image of Jason Bittel
OnEarth news blogger Jason Bittel contributes to Slate and serves up science for picky eaters on his website, Bittel Me This. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two tiny wolves. (Note: wolves may be Pomeranians.) MORE STORIES ➔