Nutrient Sensor Challenge: Innovation by Another Name

Freshwater nutrient pollution alone costs the U.S. more than $2 billion each year. And that stat is an underestimate because it doesn’t account for brackish estuaries or the 95,000 miles of salty coasts.

In an effort to help address this problem, EPA is part of the Challenging Nutrients Coalition, a group of federal agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations coordinating innovative approaches to develop a suite of effective and affordable sensors to measure nutrients in water and soil.

Sensors won’t reduce pollution by themselves, but they can provide more data and better data to inform management decisions and policies.

The coalition launched the Nutrient Sensor Challenge, a global competition to create incentives that will accelerate the development of accurate, durable, and affordable nutrient sensors. The goal is to profoundly improve our ability to understand and measure aquatic nutrient pollution.

Nitrogen and phosphorus – what we refer to collectively as “nutrients” – are natural parts of healthy ecosystems. But excessive nutrient levels can harm our environment, our economy, and our health.

Current methods for detecting and measuring nutrients are complex and expensive. Our new approach to this intractable problem will apply a familiar innovation tool: prize competitions.

Agencies across the government have used prize competitions to gather new ideas, spur innovation and support technology development. Recent discussions reflect a shift from thinking about competitions as strictly incentive-based (one-off efforts with one cash prize) to designing them based on market demand (stimulating an entire industry).

A great example of this market-pull tactic is the Department of Energy’s competition that asked innovators to develop a wireless electricity sub-meter that could be sold for less than $100.

The Nutrient Sensor Challenge follows that example with the goal of demonstrating market potential to encourage developers to hit competition criteria, sensor requirements, and price points. The plan is for participating technologies to be available for purchase by 2017.

Affordable sensors can help us obtain important scientific information about how nutrients move through the environment. At a broader level, this competition represents another example of the rise of sensors and the wide range of applications for sensors in federal agencies and state governments.

Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Dustin Renwick is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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