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A University of Montana professor who developed a sensor used to gauge the problem of acidity in seawater has received a federal grant of nearly $1 million to advance the sensor's commercial potential.

Sponsors of the $980,000 grant awarded to chemist and oceanographer Mike DeGrandpre are the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Office of Naval Research.

The sensor, called a Submersible Autonomous Moored Instrument, measures the pH of seawater or fresh water and can be placed on buoys for up to one year. Collected data is logged into an internal memory chip, for downloading later.

DeGrandpre said the money will go toward making the sensor commercially viable by improving its reliability and ease of use.

Interest in the sensor is tied to rising concern about seawater that is corrosively acidic.

At a congressional field hearing last month at the Seattle Aquarium, marine scientists warned that the Pacific Coast's increasing acidity could disrupt food chains and threaten the Pacific Northwest's shellfish industry. Scientists tied the problem to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

DeGrandpre first began working on sensor technology for marine research in the early 1990s, during his postdoctoral years at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. He joined the University of Montana in 1996. Several years later he founded a UM spinoff company, Sunburst Sensors, which manufactures and markets sensors. The company, now co-owned with mechanical engineer Jim Beck, had generated $1.2 million in sales and service by the end of 2007.

DeGrandpre said grants awarded through the National Oceanographic Partnership Program require at least three partners from government, industry or academia. For this grant, the University of Montana is the lead institution. Sunburst Sensors and California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography are collaborators.

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