The Nature Conservancy, in collaboration with the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Geological Survey, recently launched a Challenge seeking to identify and spur development of technologies to monitor nitrogen concentration in effluent from advanced Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems. The Challenge has a guaranteed award of $20,000 but up to $55,000 is available for awards. Winners will also have the special opportunity to attend the Sensor Showcase in May 2017. Winning solvers will be able to present their solutions and meet the Seekers and collaborators of this prize competition. We recently spoke with Christopher Clapp from The Nature Conservancy about the Challenge.
For those not familiar with The Nature Conservancy, can you tell us a bit about your organization’s work?
The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends. We have chapters in all 50 states and in over 34 countries around the world. We are a science-based conservation organization that seeks long-lasting results through abating the threats to people and nature through innovation, policy and on-the-ground restoration activities.
You recently launched the Advanced Septic Nitrogen Sensor Challenge. Can you explain why it is important to monitor nitrogen concentration in effluent and how this complements The Nature Conservancy’s mission?
One of the greatest threats to the ecologic, economic, and cultural health of our coastal environments, as well as millions of peoples’ drinking water, is nitrogen pollution from sewage leaking from antiquated cesspools and septic systems. One solution is advanced treatment wastewater systems. These systems require rigorous testing to be permitted and approved, and even beyond approval require occasional sampling to insure they are performing adequately. In the current paradigm, testing is performed manually and is very costly. With such a sensor this cost can be significantly reduced, if not eliminated, allowing new technologies to come to market quicker and with a decreased monitoring hurdle. Additionally, continuous monitoring will give certainty to regulators and the public that they are achieving the reduction goals that they set out to achieve. Finally, a sensor such as this could potentially alert a service provider when a system begins to decrease its performance and act to correct a problem before it becomes an emergency. In effect we are looking to protect public and environmental health at a considerably reduced cost.
Why are you looking towards InnoCentive and crowdsourcing to try and address this need?
As scientists and practitioners we are not always connected to the world of innovators. This is such an important challenge that we felt it was critical to cast a broad net to see what we can achieve together. We have great confidence that this Challenge will bring us closer to solving this pollution crisis.
Can you describe the impact a successful solution would have?
The potential impact goes well beyond the tiny geography from which it has been born from. All over the world communities are trying to find ways to ensure that the waters around them are safe for drinking, swimming and fishing. In the United States alone there is a potential market of well over 3 million homes. That number could easily expand if this Challenge is adapted to help commercial industries like farmers more accurately fertilize crops or large scale wastewater plants automate themselves. The potential for this Challenge is nearly limitless.
Do you have any final words of advice for solvers wanting to participate?
Don’t hesitate. The ideation phase is short and there is no worse paralysis than the pursuit of perfection. If you have an idea, get it on paper and send it in. If you can experiment and prototype a little and you can get basic data, even better!