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When oyster fishermen on the West Coast want to know how well their crop will fare, they turn to a gadget made in Missoula by Sunburst Sensors.

Founded by a University of Montana professor, the company makes a sensor that measures carbon dioxide, and high levels of CO2 hurt oysters. Another Sunburst sensor measures pH.

The modules, dispatched from the Washington coast to far beneath Arctic ice, have now advanced in an international competition with a $2 million purse. Last week, company CEO Jim Beck said Sunburst Sensors is among 14 teams that remain of an original 70 that planned to participate in the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE. 

"(The XPRIZE is) a global competition that challenges individuals and teams to build innovative pH sensor technology that will accurately measure and advance the understanding of ocean acidification," reads a news release from Sunburst.

Already, the company has proven its muster since it formed in 1999 and is well known to oceanographers. In 2012, Sunburst received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation that's putting more than 100 units into the oceans as part of an Ocean Observatories Initiative.

Its latest advancement in the global competition further marks the small company as a leader in ocean science. According to Sunburst, the competition aims to create technology "that will affordably, accurately and efficiently measure ocean chemistry from its shallowest to its deepest depths."

Last week on a tour of the company's labs and offices, Beck showed the versions of the SAMIs, or Submersible Autonomous Moored Instruments, that Sunburst submitted into the competition. The SAMIs are cylinders outfitted with membranes and lights that together can measure pH or carbon dioxide.

In the back of the West Broadway offices are labs where SAMIs are built, tested and retrofitted. A pressure tank sits in one room, and in another, Matthew Kuester keeps a set of old SAMIs he turns to when he can reuse material.

"I keep the museum under here for when I need spare parts," joked Kuester, manufacturing technician.

When it needs new parts, the company tries to keep business close to home, Beck said. For instance, Big Sky Machinery in Superior made a cage that holds the sensor when it is submerged.

"We try to use local suppliers to the extent that we are able," Beck said.

Sunburst has eight employees, among them chemists, engineers, and physicists. UM professor and founder Michael DeGrandpre still serves as chief technical officer, although he is not on the payroll.

DeGrandpre developed the patented carbon dioxide technology at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Rhode Island in the 1990s, according to Sunburst. Now, the SAMIs are deployed in China, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and formerly in Russia, using software also developed by Sunburst.

"We're doing a lot of things with a small crew," Beck said.

In the competition, the teams are competing for two separate $1 million awards. One is for accuracy, and the other is based on affordability.

Sunburst entered two devices into the XPRIZE, and it developed a special "inexpensive" SAMI, an iSAMI, designed to meet the cost and usability criteria. Last weekend, Beck traveled to Seattle where the iSAMI had completed three months of being submerged in the coastal environment of the Seattle Aquarium.

Sunburst can measure pH to the third decimal point, but the affordability purse did not require the same level of accuracy in deep water.

"We could greatly simplify our design using less expensive parts," Beck said. "It's not pretty, but it work well."

The iSAMI has completed its rounds in the competition, and Sunburst will learn the results in July. Another SAMI, the tSAMI, is still eligible to advance to another phase, and if it does, Beck will head to Hawaii for another deployment at a depth of 3,000 meters.

"Our standard instrument only goes to 600 meters so we developed a titanium housing to handle the depth requirement," Beck said. "Our hope is that we make it to the phase four deep-sea trials to see how this sensor performs."

The competition should help increase public awareness of problems caused by ocean acidification, but it's also spurred the Sunburst team to move more quickly on its own development ideas.

"It's been a real motivator," Beck said. "Even though this is an intense competition, there is a great deal of collegiality between the teams."

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University of Montana, higher education