by Paul Pyzowski, Guest Contributor
This past year’s massive oil spill in the U.S. Gulf Coast only reinforced the importance of the world’s oceans as a source of food, minerals, and energy, as well as the oceans’ impact on climate and human living conditions. Although our scientific understanding of the oceans is still incomplete, microfluidics and MEMS technologies are helping to reveal their secrets.
Advances in climate and environmental research have been enabled by two macro trends that date back to the 1960s. The first is increasing societal awareness of the importance of the environment, and a corresponding increase in government funding for related research. The second is the steady increase in computing power that has let researchers build descriptive and ultimately predictive computational models to simulate weather and climate. (Twenty years ago, an accurate “ten day weather forecast” would have been considered laughable.)
Building and testing computer models of climate requires considerable amounts of sample data. Collecting terrestrial temperature, pressure, and humidity data is far easier and cheaper than collecting comparable data from the oceans: devices need to survive great pressures at even modest ocean depths, cannot be powered by solar power, and are frequently out of contact as radio waves cannot penetrate the water. A consistent theme among oceanographers is that the ocean environment is “woefully undersampled”. Projects like the Ocean Observatories Initiative are coordinating research efforts to get more and better data, but deployment of current sensing systems is still costly enough to make larger scale sampling impractical.
Microfluidics and miniaturization are recognized as enabling technologies to change this. Last September, the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC) sponsored a full day Environmental Sensors Workshop at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. And this past month the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton sponsored a full day conference titled Microfluidics and Sensor Technology for Oceanographic and Environmental Science Applications.
Much of the academic work in ocean sensors is done by research groups that are part of a larger “environmental” or “sensor” effort. One of the few groups dedicated applying microfluidics and miniaturized sensor technology specifically to oceanographic research is the Centre for Marine Microsystems at the University of Southampton (United Kingdom). The Centre currently has an impressive portfolio of active programs developing miniaturized/microfabricated sensors for measuring physical properties such as temperature and salinity; chemical sensors for a range of analytes including dissolved ammonia, methane, nitrates and phosphates; microfluidic flow cytometers to distinguish different species of plankton; and even nucleic acid analysis based on NASBA (an alternative to RT-PCR) to identify species in algal blooms.
How should investors think about these efforts? First, recognize that even though oceanographic studies is an important area of scientific research, the market itself will be limited primarily to government funded research. Second, the underlying sensor technologies themselves have largely already been developed for other markets and are being adapted for use in “ocean sensors”; the development work is largely applied as opposed to more costly and risky fundamental research. Venture backing for this area is unlikely, although a small company could use a combination of angel, grant, and customer financing to launch and develop its business. There are several companies, including Bluefin Robotics (an 80-person company that is now part of Batelle) and YSI (with over $100 million in annual revenue) that already serve this area, demonstrating that there is a market. A focused company that was also able to develop “dual use” technologies for use by the naval military and safety markets could do quite well.
Paul Pyzowski is an entrepreneur and executive whose experience in MEMS includes DNA diagnostics, medical devices for treatment of neurological disease, sensors for homeland security and clean energy, and electronic design automation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2010 MEMS Investor Journal, Inc.