Nitrogen Reduction Grand Challenge offers $1 million prize

Alexa Christianson, Associate News Editor

Beyond its Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Tulane is looking to have a larger impact with its Nitrogen Reduction Grand Challenge, which challenges teams to alleviate hypoxia, an oxygen deficiency in water created from excessive nutrient enrichment.

Tulane board member and philanthropist Phyllis Taylor, after whom the Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane is named, is offering $1 million dollars to the team to create the winning “technical, market-based” solution to reduce nitrogen levels in the water that cause hypoxia.

36 original teams applied to partake in the Grand Challenge. Only 15 teams were invited to the technical submission phase where deeper details, including a 20-page fact sheet, were required about the implementation of their solutions. The top five teams will travel to northeastern Louisiana to implement their solutions on a plot of farming land.

Once the contest has been narrowed to two teams, they will be provided larger tracts of land to run their final tests before a winner is selected.

“I don’t know [what to expect from the teams], and that’s what I think is so exciting,” Grand Challenge Project Manager Leah Berger Jensen said. “The sky is the limit.”

Hypoxia is one of the many unique environmental detriments, including coastal erosion, lack of wetland growth and the ever-persistent threat of hurricanes, that affect the Gulf Coast of the southern United States and northern Mexico.

“[Hypoxia is] essentially caused by blooms of algae and other microorganisms, things that do photosynthesis, and what causes the actual dead zone is fundamentally fertilizers and agricultural runoff,” Environmental Sciences Professor Jeff Sigler said. 

The dead zones caused by hypoxia bring the concentration of dissolved oxygen in that water area to levels as low as zero or one, which is not survivable for aquatic life. The prevalence of fishing and farming in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast makes this a larger social issue.

“Anything that impacts biodiversity is going to impact us economically because that’s a big part of our economy down here, the fishing industry,” Sigler said.

Scientists, board members and other dedicated affiliates at Tulane have been working for years to initiate the Grand Challenge and are proud to have Tulane as one of the first universities supporting a Grand Challenge of this scale.

“That’s been exciting for me to realize … that the backbone of the challenge is innovation and entrepreneurship,” Jensen said. “We get to think outside of the box with these very physical issues to solve. It’s really the spark within a nation.”

Grand Challenges differ from traditional funding-driven university contests because they are supported by the White House.

Along with national movement to advocate for environmental issues in the region, on-campus activities have highlighted these issues.

Hannah Cohen, a freshman who is part of Tulane’s Green Club, works to advocate for recycling education among other causes and plans to participate in the upcoming Know Tomorrow Day to raise awareness of environmental issues on campus. Cohen said awareness is vital to raise in the city.

“For a lot of people, it’s a newer idea in New Orleans in general,” Cohen said. “A lot more education needs to be done for a lot of people.”

Jensen strongly believes that there are multiple ways for students to engage in environmental causes on campus.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunities [to be involved],” Jensen said. “There’s a variety of centers within the university … this process of challenges and prizes is something that is beneficial for students to get involved in.”

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