Agencies use challenges to solve environmental issues

Alliance for Coastal Technologies researchers deploy a group of sensors. (Alliance for Coastal Technologies)


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Contests and challenges have become an important way for federal agencies to find tech-based solutions to some of the most serious environmental problems affecting our planet’s oceans and animals.

Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy have begun offering cash prizes enticing innovators to take on the most pressing environmental challenges, according to a White House blog post.

With outside help, agencies can find solutions they may have never thought of on their own, OSTP Assistant Director of Open Innovation Christofer Nelson told FedScoop.

“Prizes and challenges are a way that allows government to bring in out-of-discipline perspectives, gauge possible suspects and create innovative partnerships,” said Nelson, who has helped organize a variety of federal challenges.

The Challenging Nutrients Coalition comprises a set of five challenges that uses those benefits to stop the increase of nutrients in the environment, like nitrogen and phosphorus, the blog post said. While animals and plants need these to live, overfertilization and pollution have caused there to be too many nutrients, leading to algae overgrowth and an oxygen deficiency.

The Nutrient Water Sensor Challenge, one of the contests sponsored by the EPA and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, and carried out by the Alliance for Coastal Technologies, is looking for a cheap, more effective way to measure certain chemicals in bodies of water, ACT Executive Director Mario Tamburri told FedScoop.

After working on their sensors for about a year and a half, the final eight participants are currently putting their work to the test in the Chesapeake Bay for three months to see if they can accurately and consistently give readings throughout the day.

With the new sensors, scientists can collect data on nitrogen, water pH levels and other measures every 15 minutes, Tamburri said. Before, it could have taken up to a month to get a reading.

“When the coalition was formed, with all the different agencies involved…the real limitations involving the data implicit problems were the lack of technology to measure these parameters in water,” he said.

The Nutrient Recycling Challenge is another part of the coalition. Led by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, scientists searched for ways to recycle nutrients from livestock manure in an environmentally and economically responsible way. Phase I finished in March, and winners will continue to develop their ideas during Phase II during this summer.

In another coalition challenge from last year, the EPA, United States Geological Survey and environmental nonprofit Blue Legacy International sponsored a contest for high schoolers to work on an application that organizes and analyzes data on nutrient levels. The contest winner tracked phosphorus runoff through Lake Erie, according to a USGS press release.

The environmental community is “ripe” for these kinds of projects, Nelson said, and is encouraging researchers in and out of government to tackle all types of green issues. So far, challenges have been used to help wildlife tracking and conservation, fish detection, and solar energy. The Department of Energy, for example, is currently testing the finalists of a challenge to harness a renewable form of energy from ocean waves.

The White House in the blog post also touted nutrient challenges outside the government, such as Tulane University’s million dollar Nitrogen Reduction Challenge and the George Barley Water Prize, which offers a $10-million grand prize to remove phosphorus from freshwater bodies. Both contests are still open for registration.

Contests or challenges like these may be the best way to encourage people to tackle these issues because they often provide the financial support researchers need to develop and mature their projects for wide use, Nelson said.

“It isn’t just about developing new technology, it’s about making sure they are being utilized in the marketplace,” he told FedScoop.

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Agencies, emerging technology, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Tech
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