As a result of their recent success with the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, a competition to create the most precise pH sensor to help record ocean acidification, Team pHFine Scale of CHS was invited to display their project in Washington D.C. during the week of Oct. 4.
Seniors Jack Maughan, Ethan Kurteff, Benek Robertson and Ethan Miller made their way to D.C. for the Congressional Prize Caucus, an event formed to increase awareness and support further action for prize competitions. Especially exceptional teams from around the country were invited to display their research at the caucus. Additional team members were sophomore Bridget Maughan and mother Lisa Maughan.
The XPRIZE competition is comprised of two different challenges: the expensive and inexpensive purse.
For the expensive challenge, competitors were tasked with building an extremely precise pH sensor, without the consideration of money, that went down 3,000 meters. It attracted the attention of big corporations, investing thousands upon thousands of dollars.
Team pHFine Scale competed in the inexpensive purse, which, as expected, placed a greater emphasis on the affordability of each machine.
As many students learn in CHS science classes, precision is an entirely different concept than accuracy. The general challenge for the competition was to make the most precise and accurate pH sensor. As Kurteff, head of calibration, notes, “[their sensor] is plenty precise, but getting it to be close to the true pH is very difficult.”
First place for each competition was awarded $750,000 with second place winning $250,000. Third place got a “pat on the back” says Robertson, the director of packaging and the external sensor structure.
“If you won both categories,” explains team leader Jack Maughan, “you could win $2 million.”
Team pHFine Scale performed exceptionally well at the competition. Out of a total of 1,000 registered competitors, 70 teams created a machine and only 20 made it to the final stage.
“Stage 3 was an open water test where they put the sensors in the water for a month,” Maughan describes, “and they had to run on battery life for an entire month testing in real seawater.”
“We were incredibly close,” Maughan says. “When we got the data back from Phase 2 as they recently released, we were in first place for the inexpensive purse. But because we had a partial data set on the last phase, two [other] teams won. We may or may not have been one place behind [the top two teams].”
The partial data set, as Kurteff explains, was due to a leak in the sensor. “[The sensor] had been recording for only a matter of hours out of an entire month of a test phase.”
“If we had gotten a full data set on test 3,” adds Robertson, “we would likely be walking out of [the competition] with some money.”
The team’s success was not lost on the scientific community. Their sensor caught the attention of the Congressional Prize Caucus, an event to which even “the winners didn’t get invited,” Maughan remarks.
Moving forward, the team hopes to put their sensor on the market and possibly turn a profit. While they have moved on from the intense 12-hour Saturday work days, they are still striving to improve their sensor and help create extra awareness for ocean acidification.
“It’s kind of like the Rocket Boys,” remarks science teacher Michael Guardino, who taught all the boys in Honors Physics and Kurteff and Maughan in AP Chemistry. “[The team], without anybody telling them that they had to do this, spent all this time and energy building this device that was very capable.… You are not going to find more motivated, capable, talented, creative students around. You know they don’t build them like those guys.”