Latest XPrize winners take on the health of the world's oceans

Ocean acidification may have been involved in a mass extinction 200 million years ago that killed off half of the marine life on Earth. And we know that our oceans today are becoming more acidic by the minute. So the natural questions to ask are: What is going to happen next and what can we do about it?

"We don't know what's going on in our oceans, which is the scary part," said Peter Diamandis, CEO of XPrize, on "CBS This Morning." "Because what we do in the next 10 years affects what happens in the next 10,00 years. Unless you can measure something, you can't change it."

And that's why Diamandis just awarded the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize to a team from Montana that figured out how to cheaply and reliably measure the pH of the sea.

"This is a really important issue because 30 percent of the emissions that we put into the atmosphere are absorbed into the oceans," said Wendy Schmidt, benefactor of the eponymous award. "We're changing the chemistry of the ocean and that changes all life in the oceans."

It kills coral reefs, makes it harder for shellfish to produce shells, unravels the food web and interferes with a global ecosystem that provides the primary protein source for 2 billion people around the world and half of the oxygen we breathe (more than all the rain forests combined).

Of the 70 teams that competed for the XPrize, 18 of which delivered hardware, Sunburst Sensors, a small Montana company with just nine employees, rose to the top with a technology that can accurately measure the pH of the ocean for 10 to 15 times less money than anything else before it.

Their sensors were put through the paces in three months of laboratory observations, a month-long performance exam at the Seattle Aquarium and a real-world deep-sea trial 100 miles off the coast of Hawaii.

In winning the $1 million accuracy purse and the $1 million affordability purse, Sunburst joins an elite pedigree of innovators who have been propelled by XPrize's lucrative challenges to build a car that gets over 100 miles to the gallon, rovers to roam the moon, reusable space capsules and technology to clean up oil spills faster and more effectively than ever.

"Our goal is finding problems on the planet that have market failures, that are stuck," explained Diamandis. "What should we be able to solve that we're not?"

"We put up these prizes and ask innovators to solve them. We say, we don't care where you're from, you solve this problem, you win the cash, we all win a better world."

  • Amanda Schupak

    Amanda Schupak is the science and technology editor at CBSNews.com