A Prize to Solve a Wicked Environmental Problem


In Brief

Abstract

Economic, ecological, and health impacts of excessive Phosphorus reaching our waterbodies are well documented worldwide. It is expected that freshwater eutrophication events will become more frequent due to steady population growth and intensification of agriculture. There is a spectrum of possible solutions to the problem of excess Phosphorus entering aquatic ecosystems. These ideas range from implementation of best management practices in agricultural and urban settings to downstream integration of constructed wetlands that filter waters through natural processes. Phosphorus removal from rivers and lakes remains a technological challenge, from the perspective of both cost effectiveness and efficiency. New, cheaper, and more adaptable techniques are required to remove excess Phosphorus from impaired freshwater bodies worldwide. The $10 million George Barley Water Prize was designed to incentivize research in solving the ongoing Phosphorus problem. Structured in stages to mimic the commercial development of new technologies, the Water Prize has already awarded winners for Stages 1, 2, and 3 (Pilot Phase).


Eutrophication and its Impacts
Excessive phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) reaching our waterbodies is threatening the health of ecosystems worldwide and destroying aquatic life1. The increase in nutrient flows to the environment has been attributed to population growth, intensive agricultural practices, and industrial activities2. Researchers report that the net P storage in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems have increased by at least 75% when compared to pre-industrial levels of storage2. This increase has impaired freshwater lakes and rivers around the world catalyzing increased numbers of algae bloom events during the last decades3-5. In the United States, 48% of freshwater bodies are impaired due to nutrient pollution (Figure 1), generating economic, ecological, and health impacts. The analysis of potential economic damage due to freshwater eutrophication in the US alone was estimated at about $4.3 billion USD annually. These damages mainly include reduced property values, and the closure of lakes to boating and fishing6. The ecological impacts of eutrophication are well documented starting from the excessive growth of algae, potentially leading to loss of subaquatic vegetation, low dissolved oxygen, fish kills, and ecosystem collapse. Cyanobacterial toxins causing acute poisoning, skin irritation, and gastrointestinal illnesses in humans are also well documented as the multiple health impacts of harmful algae blooms.

It is expected that freshwater eutrophication events will become more frequent because of continued population growth leading to the intensification of agriculture, mainly in the developing world where  fertilizer consumption is expected to increase by 40% between 2002 and 20307.

 

Figure 1. Phosphorus pollution: Sources and cost. Credit: H2H Graphics for the Everglades Foundation.

 

A Prize Focusing on Phosphorus Removal
Excess P inputs from point sources such as sewage treatment plants have been curtailed in freshwaters of the industrialized world since the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act and similar subsequent laws. However, non-point source pollution, which originates from diffuse sources is still an ongoing water-quality problem8. In fact, the major source of P in freshwater in the United States is non-point source flux from land to water9, 10.

A P budget of the upper Potomac River Basin revealed that over 60% of imported P was retained within the watershed caused by an excess of fertilizer and animal feed inputs over outputs of agricultural products11. Other studies reported similar increased P storage in terrestrial ecosystems and that P accumulation was caused by an imbalance in P inputs of fertilizer and animal feeds exceeding P outputs in agricultural products12.

The reported amount of P transported from terrestrial ecosystems to freshwaters is estimated at around 25.9 Tg.yr-1 (1 teragram = 1 million metric tons) while 10 Tg.yr-1 is the total estimated amount of P stored in soils annually13. Reddy et al. (2010)14 estimated that the total P stored in the floc and surface soils of the Greater Everglades ecosystem is about 0.4 Tg. This P stored in the soils and transported into our freshwater ecosystems is causing an ecological imbalance that could potentially lead to endemic health problems.

There is a spectrum of possible solutions to remove excess phosphorus discharged into our freshwaters. These range from implementing best management practices at the source level (farm or city), to downstream integration of constructed wetlands that filter waters through natural processes. Although it is relatively inexpensive to spread phosphorus-based fertilizers on farms,  technologies currently implemented to remove excess phosphorus in our freshwaters are prohibitively expensive, largely owed to intensive land requirements, expensive materials, and/or high capital, operating, and maintenance costs. Furthermore, costs dramatically increase when cleaning water at relatively low phosphorus concentrations, and under different conditions (variable temperature, flows, concentrations, etc.). The State of Florida alone would be required  to spend $4-5 billion to clean water flowing into Lake Okeechobee and to reach the 20 ppb P target (Figure 1)15.

These figures suggest a technological breakthrough is required to control large scale phosphorus levels cost effectively.  Recognizing that great ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, The Everglades Foundation decided to create an incentive program to solve this problem by proposing a $10 million global prize.

The $10 million George Barley Water prize was designed by a group of national and international experts led by major companies (InnoCentive, Nesta, and VERB) specialized in developing large-scale incentive prizes. The prize was designed in stages where technologies would be tested in a lab environment and at a pilot scale before being tested at a larger field scale. These multiple stages served to mimic the industrial process of technology development and to give competitors several opportunities to translate their early-stage ideas into commercially successful technologies (Figure 2).

 

Figure 2. Timeline and structure of the first three stages of the George Barley Water Prize. Credit: VERB for the Everglades Foundation.

 

The George Barley Water Prize is looking for an innovative technology that:

  • is radically cheaper to construct and operate than currently available removal technologies;
  • removes enough total phosphorus from contaminated freshwater to achieve healthy water bodies;
  • removes excess phosphorus even when it is present at low-concentrations;
  • does not negatively impact the environment, and abides by appropriate regulations;
  • works in cold and warm conditions;
  • demonstrates adaptability through its easy onsite construction and deconstruction; and,
  • is capable of effectively scaling to handle industrial flows of water.

The winner must prove their innovation can work in a laboratory setting and in challenging field conditions. Leading up to The Grand Challenge Stage, competitors have already successfully completed three stages (Stage 1, Stage 2, and the Pilot Prize Stage) of the competition. The focus of this paper is the first two stages of adjudicating The George Barley Water Prize.

Stage 1 of the Prize
Stage 1 was launched in June 2016 to incentivize the demonstration of new ideas (Figure 2). Contestants were encouraged to compete from the widest possible pool of innovators. This stage aimed at: 1) forging a spirit of competition to encourage researchers and businesses from within and from outside of the field by showcasing, comparing, and rewarding promising early-stage technologies, and 2) creating a collaborative community of innovators and engage researchers, technologists, and companies on the subject. Contestants were asked to describe the use of their technologies in reducing total phosphorus (TP) (not only focusing on soluble reactive phosphorus) in water. Contestants were required to highlight the geochemical characteristics of the processed water to showcase its discharge readiness. A judging panel provided feedback on the submissions to guide contestants better improve their technologies. A total of $35,000 USD was awarded to the three winners of this stage (Team blueXgreen of the University of Idaho (USA), AquaCal AgBag (USA) and Wetsus NaFRAD of the Netherlands).

While Stage 1 applicants were heavily concentrated in the United States, teams from Canada, India, Belgium, Germany, Australia, China, Japan, Indonesia, Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, and Israel also applied. Approximately, 50% of the applications came from for-profit organizations, while the other half came from non-profit or hybrid organizations. Altogether, 26 applications were affiliated with one or more universities. The technologies presented in Stage 1 were diverse. 14% of the applications were physical technologies, 26% were biological, 18% were chemical, and the remaining 42% were a hybrid technology. All 104 applications went through a technical evaluation lead by experts in the fields of chemical and process engineering, hydrology, economics, water quality, and ecology. The Everglades Foundation selected an additional four communications experts to rank the applications based on presentation, clarity, resonance, and shareability. From the judging outcome and scoring, it was clear that all competitors’ videos were too technical to grasp and lacked the resonance and shareability criteria. It was clear from the results that many of the scientists tended to delve deeply into details not necessary to understand the overall goal of the idea or the novelty of the process.

Stage 2 of The Prize
Months after the completion of Stage 1, Stage 2 was launched in January 2017 (Figure 2). This stage aimed to incentivize the development of new ideas that could be further improved and ‘scaled-up’ at later stages of the competition. This stage aimed at: 1) testing the technologies under similar conditions, providing better scope for comparison and competition, and 2) helping contestants gain a better understanding of their own processes. Contestants tested their technologies in their own laboratory facilities adhering to and documenting quality assurance, quality control protocols. Contestants subsequently sent their samples to certified laboratories of their choosing in their respective countries, and/or states. From the beginning of Stage 2 to August 31, 2017, contestants used their facilities to prove their technology’s performance in treating 567 Liters of water with variable phosphorus concentrations in a laboratory environment. Each test period was required to run for a total of 2 weeks. A total of $80,000 was awarded to the three winners of this stage (Wetsus NaFRAd from the Netherlands, Green Water Solution (USA) and the U.S. Geological Survey – Leetown Science).

Stage 2 was open to all contestants without ant pre-assessment or qualification criteria. By the close of the deadline, Stage 2 received 32 completed applications. Of these 32 applications, 24 were advanced to the expert panel of judges for a multi-stage judging process. A panel of expert judges, similarly comprised of industry experts, went through the lengthy process to identifying the winners of the Stage 2, and the 10 teams (from the 24 applicants) who would be selected to move on to the next stage, The Pilot Stage.

The Prize Design Process
Prizes have long been used not only to drive innovation for societal benefit, but also to induce behavioral change, mobilize new talent or capital, and raise awareness about a specific problem16. The 1714 Longitude Prize was established by the British Parliament for the discovery of a precise tool to determine longitude and prevent losses at sea. As a result, John Harrison (a clockmaker) developed the marine chronometer to immediately revolutionize shipping and trade. In 1927 Charles Lindbergh won a $25,000 prize offered by Raymond Orteig for the first flight from New York to Paris, arguably catalyzing today’s $2.7 trillion modern day aviation industry17.

It has become increasingly clear that phosphorus removal from rivers and lakes remains an unsolved technological challenge, largely due to the cost and effectiveness perspectives. Several companies focused on the removal of P from lakes or rivers are currently operating. However, there are still several challenges to successful deployment in the P removal equation; reaching very low P concentrations in freshwater, and removing phosphorus without negatively impacting the ecosystems by adding chemicals. Cost is yet another challenge as current technologies are too costly (capital, operation, and management) when cleaning large amounts of water with initial TP levels less than 500 ppb. When dealing with large amount of water at low P concentrations, cost easily escalate to upwards of billions of dollars.

The George Barley Water Prize was designed in phases following a well-known innovation model that breaks the process into five steps (Figure 3).

 

Figure 3. Innovation model of the George Barley Water Prize. Credit: H2H Graphics for the Everglades Foundation.

 

Ideation
The first step is “Ideation”, where ideas are generated and tested.   For the topic of phosphorus removal, the scientific literature is brimming with ideas, as scientists from all across the globe put their hypotheses in front of their colleagues for review, the essence of the scientific process.  But there are others working on the issue of phosphorus as well.  Inventors and entrepreneurs come up with ideas every day, and are tasked with moving these proposals towards the next step in the innovation process.

Advocacy & Screening
Every idea needs an advocate, someone who can represent the idea, pitch it to peers and potential backers, defend and explain it succinctly and with passion.  Without an advocate, no idea can survive.   But, not every idea should survive.  That is why screening is an essential component.  The most successful innovators are those who can ruthlessly screen their own ideas, sifting through hundreds of possibilities to find the single gem of an idea, the breakthrough.  The peer-review component of the scientific process is also essential in validating good ideas, as the process guarantees that erroneous concepts get disproven through rigorous review.   Once an idea has passed the screening phase, it deserves some investment in the form of experimentation.

Experimentation
Experimentation is the bedrock of the scientific process, with carefully designed tests that prove or disprove the idea, and potentially expand, refine, and revise it.  The experimentation phase starts small and is progressively scaled up with increasing complexity and rigor.   Experiments often start in the laboratory, on a workbench; hence the term “bench-scale” experiments.  These are limited, can be easily reproduced, and are relatively cheap.  Next, these experiments scale up to a pilot project. Here the technology is tested and refined in something close to a real-world situation, but operations remain small enough to keep costs relatively low.  The final step in experimentation is a full-scale test, or “going to beta” as it is often referred to.  A potential technology is tested in real conditions and preferably with actual users.  This is the ultimate proof required to move to the final phases:  commercialization and dissemination.

Commercialization and Dissemination
Commercialization and Dissemination are more than just selling your product; it needs to compete in the marketplace.  The idea needs financial backing, marketing, and a myriad of other elements to make it a reality.  Inventors often lack business acumen; therefore, collaborations are common, either with an existing organization or through the foundation of a new business.   Without this step ideas remain just abstractions; this final step converts them into a commercially-viable reality.

The George Barley Water Prize was designed to follow these same 5 steps, with the goal of accelerating the overall process, and bringing new ideas to market as soon as possible.

 

 

In Brief
Affecting both freshwater and coastal ecosystems, nutrient eutrophication is a subtle yet rapidly growing environmental crisis of international significance. A rapid increase in intensive agricultural practices, industrial activities, and population growth have all contributed to an increased incidence of algal bloom events throughout the world.  Debilitating and often irreversible impacts include a loss of sub-aquatic vegetation, changes in species composition, coral reef damage and the formation of oxygen-depleted waters or “dead zones.” Entire ecosystems are at risk of collapse. No known process currently exists capable of cost effectively removing excess phosphorus from freshwater bodies.

A technological breakthrough is required to control large scale phosphorus levels.  Recognizing that great ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, the Everglades Foundation launched the $10 million George Barley water Prize, a prize available to researchers capable of developing a cost-effective process for removing phosphorus from natural water bodies on a large scale.  The goals of the Phosphorus Grand Challenge are to promote economically viable technologies, incentivize resilient technologies, and generate public awareness.  During the first two stages of the competition, more than 100 applicants with new ideas and technologies from 13 different countries competed for the prize.  Ten teams were selected for the pilot (third) phase of the competition. The George Barley water Prize was successful in testing those technologies at a lab scale and at a pilot scale in Canada demonstrating their viability and resiliency.

Throughout history, prizes have been used for societal benefit. Since early 2000, the use of prizes with wide objectives has gradually increased, driving innovation, tackling ambitious goals, and focusing on challenging problems (new drugs, space travel, etc.).  In the environmental field, setting specific measurable goals and clear outcomes for the competition, involving the existing problem-solvers in identifying the challenges, and assessing the solvers risk-taking attitude are necessary for launching a successful prize. 

Acknowledgements
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Everglades Foundation. The authors thank the generous support of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, Xylem, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Scott’s Miracle Gro Foundation, Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, and the Field Museum. The authors also thank all the experts for judging the competition results and Verb for managing the prize.

 


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