Nutrient Sensor Action Challenge Bringing Better Technologies to More People

By on April 12, 2018
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A water sample processed for nutrients. (Credit: By USEPA)

Imagine a new kind of farming, one supported by accessible, affordable technologies. Even the smallest farmers can monitor their soil and water for nutrients and other levels with systems that are tied to smartphones and tablets. Growers are more productive for less money, and they are safeguarding water quality, preventing harmful runoff from polluting streams and groundwater.

Does it sound out of reach? Not to some of the people participating in the Nutrient Sensor Action Challenge—and phase II of the challenge is underway right now.

A federal partnership promoting new technologies

The Nutrient Sensor Action Challenge is a collaboration between the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (U.S. IOOS), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The five partners have challenged communities, organizations, and the private sector to accelerate water quality technologies and demonstrate new nutrient pollution sensor applications.

Denice Shaw of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development corresponded with EM about the challenge.

“States and other stakeholders have indicated that improved monitoring data and information regarding nutrient levels in water is a high priority,” Shaw explains. “Improving sensor technology and affordability are necessary to ensure that quality data of sufficient spatial and temporal coverage can be collected and shared. Previous Challenges have focused specifically on innovations in sensor technology; this Challenge incentivizes communities, organizations and the private sector to develop pilots that demonstrate use of new sensor technology and resulting data to inform local decisions pertaining to nutrient management.”

For American farmers, regulators, policymakers, and environmentalists alike, nutrient water pollution caused by excess phosphorus and nitrogen is a challenge. The challenge model for dealing with the problem allows members of the community and decision-makers to see that there are a host of options for including nutrient sensors as part of existing nutrient management and water monitoring efforts that succeed.

The current Challenge extends the progress made after the initial Challenge from 2014, and the EPA expects to see both new varieties of nutrient pollution sensors and innovative ways to incorporate sensors already in use come from this competition.

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Nutrient Sensor Action Challenge, Stage II timeline. (Credit: EPA)

“EPA, with our partner agencies, has run two previous Challenges that focused on accelerating development of new and more affordable nutrient sensors,” details Shaw. “This Action Challenge is looking for demonstrations of strategic use of affordable sensors (from previous challenges or other sources) to collect data and information that will inform local decisions and choices about nutrient management.”

Addressing nutrient pollution with technology

The 2014 Challenge was, in some sense, about bringing costs down in the sensor market, while this latest Challenge is more about taking the data from the sensors past challenges made available and running with it.

“While the 2014 Sensor Challenge focused on sensor development and market stimulation, the purpose of the current Action Challenge is to design and implement approaches that utilize data and information from affordable nutrient sensors to improve decisions and actions for more effective nutrient management,” adds Shaw.

Stage I of the current challenge produced five winners, but the current Stage II isn’t limited to those participants.

“The five winning teams from Stage I of the Action Challenge were chosen based on the plans they submitted describing strategies for deployment of affordable sensors and use of resulting data to effectively address a community or regional need to measure and manage excess nitrogen and/or phosphorus in water,” remarks Shaw. “Participation in Stage I is not a requirement for participating in Stage II. We hope that the 5 winners as well as the others that participated in Stage I participate in Stage II. We are also expecting many new teams to register to compete in Stage II.”

In this next stage, competing teams will deploy and collect data from at least two nutrient sensors for at least three months. According to Shaw, teams are encouraged to select and deploy sensors based on their specific site and need, are required to measure nitrogen and/or phosphorous, and at least one of the sensors must have a sales price of less than $15,000.

Looking toward the future

One of the most interesting aspects of the challenge will be the ways teams will demonstrate how local communities can use the collected data to improve nutrient management decisions; it’s not just about collecting data, but what you can do with it once you’ve got it.

“This is an important area and a key component of the challenge,” Shaw asserts. “The winning teams will be those that effectively demonstrate the ability to use sensors to collect data and information to inform and improve a decision or action regarding nutrient management. Some examples identified from Stage I submissions included: working with government partners, local water treatment facilities, universities, and algal bloom forecasters to use data to assess the effectiveness of nutrient reduction programs; and using sensor data to support state regulators who issue waste discharge licenses and make water quality standard attainment decisions pertaining to marine life quality.”

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Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. Significant increases in algae harm water quality, food resources and habitats, and decrease the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. (Credit: By USEPA)

Thus far, Shaw says, this Challenge has prompted a lot of interest and excitement from many groups including the water monitoring community. The EPA expects that teams from Stage I will be back for Stage II, and many new groups have also expressed interest in participating. The participants represent a mix of collaborators.

“Stage I teams included collaborations between communities, private sector groups, local and state organizations, and universities,” Shaw describes. “We encourage teams to include a mix of expertise and disciplines and to include participation and involvement by relevant stakeholders and decision-makers.”

Shaw and her counterparts at the other partnering federal agencies are thrilled by the community’s response to the Challenge, which has performed beyond the initial expectations of many.

“One of the exciting things about this Challenge is that is incentivizing more than just use of sensors to improve nutrient management,” Shaw explains. “This challenge is also promoting data interoperability and the ability to share data with others. A reality of water quality monitoring is that there are many organizations that are involved with collecting important information about water. The Action Challenge requirements for data management promote information sharing without adding burden on either the data sharer or the person receiving the data.”

The collaborators are also anticipating great things in the future, and an ongoing learning, research, and development process.

“This Challenge leverages some great work that’s been done by others in this space, including the Open Geospatial Consortium, USGS, and NOAA,” remarks Shaw. “What we’d like to see is a future where sensors are configured to provide easy means of sharing data and data interoperability is expected and built into the purchase; much in the same way that we’ve come to expect our cell phones to be interoperable with Bluetooth. This Challenge offers an opportunity for industry to work with users to pilot technology solutions that will improve everyone’s access to data and information about the Nation’s water quality.”

For descriptions and evaluation reports for the sensors that participated in the Nutrient Sensor Challenge: http://www.act-us.info/nutrients-challenge/Participants.php

For information on a second challenge on developing sensors to monitor nitrogen discharged from advanced septic systems: https://www.epa.gov/innovation/advanced-septic-system-nitrogen-sensor-challenge-phase-ii-prototype-testing

About Karla Lant

Karla Lant is a professional freelance science writer and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. She also covers other scientific and medical stories as well as technology.

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