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Competition Garners new Developments in pH Sensors

Durafet's sensor in use. (Photo Credit: Yui Takeshita)

With 18 teams from around the world competing, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE is challenging teams to develop pH sensor technology that will help combat ocean acidification. Researchers from Satlantic (Halifax, Canada), the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), University of California San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Honeywell Aerospace's (Phoenix, Arizona) Advanced Technology group came together to form Team Durafet, based in Plymouth, Minnesota. The group's three entries are all based on Honeywell technology, but each is uniquely packaged. Todd Martz of Scripps Institution of Oceanography spoke to Sea Technology about the Durafet senor as the team prepares for the competition's testing phase, which kicks off this month.

Which one of the entries are you working on developing?
My lab developed the SeaFET and the SeapHOx. I built the first SeaFET when I was working at MBARI. Then, I moved to Scripps, and that is when MBARI and Scripps licensed the SeaFET to Satlantic. My group continued to refine the design over the years to include other auxiliary sensors and make the pumping system a little bit more sophisticated to try to combat biofouling. The SeaFET and SeapHOx are both based around the commercial Durafet sensor sold by Honeywell. The Deep Sea Durafet is a repackaging of the sensing element that allows the sensor to withstand high pressure.

So, the sensors were already in the works before the contest?
The Deep Sea Durafet is at the prototype stage right now. Developments that went on leading up to the XPRIZE involved quite a bit of software engineering to make things more user friendly and make the data processing more straightforward.

Why did you decide to get involved with the XPRIZE competition?
To me, the pH sensor community consisted of a fairly small set of people. It really seemed like a no brainer to get involved with [XPRIZE] because we always felt like we were among the leaders. There are definitely several very good teams in the competition, and I think any of them could win. We felt like we really needed to do it to push the technology to the point that it is recognized outside of the oceanographic community. It's been a good opportunity for us to make several improvements in our software, and it has forced us to think about how to improve calibration protocols.

How will the technology you are developing help to further ocean research?
When you think about how dynamic the ocean is, it is very challenging to observe on all the space and time scales that we would like. That's where sensors really come in. The ocean cannot be adequately observed from ships alone doing bottle samples. While it is important to continue those programs, in order to really observe high-frequency changes or improve our coverage of the ocean, it requires using sensors. One of the goals on our end is to get the technology to the point that it can operate well on autonomous platforms, particularly profiling floats in the Argo program.

How are you preparing for the testing phase of the competition?
We have been preparing by taking the sensors and putting them in common test tanks and checking them against each other and benchtop pH measurements on bottles collected from the tanks. Satlantic, Scripps and MBARI more or less independently built the final versions of the sensors to be tested. Then, we grouped all of our sensors together at Scripps this last month. We put them through a series of testing deployments to test their stability. We drove all the sensors up to Monterey, and they are currently operating on the bench in Ken Johnson's lab. The goal of all of this is to get the sensors into calibration with each other as closely as possible.

Who do you think is your biggest competition?
I think there are several spectrophotometric analyzers out there that could perform very well. I feel that those sensors have the potential to come out on top, especially in terms of accuracy.

Why do you think the prize model is an effective way to foster innovation?
It's a little bit tricky to answer that in this sense, where you have mostly university researchers working on the innovation. It can be effective if the people doing the research are paired with funders in a way that donor money can be handed off to help them with their developments. My group was fortunate to receive support from the director's office at Scripps. As an academic researcher it can be challenging to come up with the required amount of money to fund an innovation. There may be some potential limits to university researchers participating in the competition because they are unable to leverage federal funds [to compete]. That said, the prize model certainly appeals to companies like Satlantic and Honeywell, probably more for the publicity than the prize money. As a team we agreed to donate any winnings from the XPRIZE to fund pH sensors in the Argo program, so from our perspective the prize model is not just about the money, but fostering research.

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