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Improving Nutrient Management and Reducing Pollution through Open Innovation Prizes

Challenges and prizes are underway to tackle nutrient pollution, including two that are currently open to sign-up by competitors

Nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, are essential for plant growth and for the production of food and livestock feed.  Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in our waterways, however, can cause algal blooms, eutrophication, and hypoxia in lakes, estuaries, and oceans—damaging ecosystems and threatening human health far from the original site of application or deposition. 

Open innovation to reduce nutrients in waterways is among the Administration’s top 100 leadership examples in science, technology, and innovation.  Federal agencies—OSTP, EPA, NOAA, USDA, USGS, and NIST—have come together to take action to improve nutrient management and reduce pollution, including by forming the Challenging Nutrients Coalition with engagement from academia and the private sector.

One way the Administration has taken action in this area is by calling for challenges and prizes that seek potentially transformative ideas to tackle intractable problems.  Below are five of these nutrient challenges and prizes, including two that are currently in progress and open to sign-up by competitors:

  • Hands-on science—field-testing nutrient sensors in the Chesapeake Bay, while dodging jellyfish stings.  Photo Credit: Alliance for Coastal Technologies, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
    Hands-on science—field-testing nutrient sensors in the Chesapeake Bay, while dodging jellyfish stings.  Photo Credit: Alliance for Coastal Technologies, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
    Nutrient Water Sensor Challenge, implemented by the Alliance for Coastal Technologies with NOAA and EPA sponsorship, to develop new, affordable, real-time N and P sensors.  These sensors will inform our understanding of nutrient flows in the environment as the foundation for improved management decisions.  Nutrient sensors from competitors from five nations are currently undergoing final performance evaluation in diverse lab and field conditions, including a grueling three months in the Chesapeake Bay to see how they respond to a high-fouling, brackish, estuarine environment.
  • Nutrient Recycling Challenge, an EPA-led effort in close collaboration with USDA and pork and dairy producers to recycle nutrients from livestock manure to generate products with environmental and economic benefits that farmers can use or sell.  Phase 1 prizes were awarded by EPA in March 2016, and Phase 2 competition details will be announced in late summer 2016.
  • Visualizing Nutrients Challenge, sponsored by the USGS, EPA, and Blue Legacy International to develop inventive ways to organize and analyze existing data on nutrient levels in water, followed by the Visualize Your Water high school challenge.  Both of these have been completed and prizes awarded—see the results here.
  • Tulane Nitrogen Reduction Challenge to develop innovative in-field solutions that will maintain crop productivity and economics while reducing nutrient run-off.  This $1 million prize commences with Phase I registration and an abstract of ideas, due August 15, 2016, and culminates in Phase II field-testing by up to five selected finalists in Louisiana in 2017. 
  • George Barley Water Prize, sponsored by the Everglades Foundation to identify a cost-effective, innovative solution to removing excess phosphorus contamination from freshwater bodies.  Teams will compete across lab, pilot, and in-field testing for a series of incremental prizes leading to the $10 million grand prize.  The Stage 1 application period opened on July 21, and will close on December 30, 2016.

Big problems need creative thinkers, backed by an innovation ecosystem supportive of big, bold, and brave ideas.  If you are an agronomist, a farmer, a chemist, a water manager, or a garage inventor with a creative idea to better manage nutrients, then the Challenging Nutrients Coalition encourages you to consider participating in these open innovation challenges.

Bruce Rodan is the Assistant Director for Environmental Health for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.