When we hear about hacking, it’s usually not a “good news” story. “Aquahacking” is an exception.

To improve water quality in Lake Erie, teams of engineers, software developers and students worked for months on a hacking competition. Erie Hack is billed as the intersection of the environment and the regional economy.  The Cleveland Water Alliance offered up cash and support, and the ideas started flowing. The final nine teams pitched their ideas to a panel of judges.

Think a little bit shark tank, and a lot toxic algae and beach monitoring.

LISTEN: Lake Erie Hackers

It was a personal project for Louis Lane, a one-man team from Toledo, who laid out a scenario for the judges: “Imagine getting a phone call at 6 o’clock in the morning from your spouse and being told that there are toxins in the lake preventing anyone from using the water. Now imagine having to use bottled water to brush your teeth, to wash dishes, having to use bottled water to bathe your six-month-old child.”

Lane remembers when this happened in 2014. He was among a half million people in Ohio and Michigan who were told not to use their tap water. Toxic cyanobacteria in western Lake Erie had clogged water treatment systems. The recurring algae problem was an impetus for this contest.

“We’re here because local governments are spending millions of dollars to prevent this thing,” said Lane. “And I’m actually here today because I never want to be as helpless as I was when I received that first phone call.”

Lane pitched a floating drone. It would monitor the Lake for cyanobacteria, collect data, and could inject good algae into the water.

The Water Warriors, a team from the University of Akron, created a spectrometer that detects nitrogen and phosphorus in the lake. It’s simple enough for school children to use, and now many schools around the Great Lakes are lining up for their technology.

The Water Warriors from the University of Akron got third place for a spectrometer that detects nitrogen and phosphorus in the lake. Photo / Cleveland Water Alliance

One team from the University of Michigan went a different route. They pitched a mobile app that would allow individuals to track their own water usage, and earn rewards for decreasing consumption.

And Micro Buoy, a team of PhD students from Wayne State University in Detroit, offered up an way to speed up the process of getting water sample results.

“So this is how it works right now. We manually take water samples, we take them to a lab, and we wait 24 to 48 hours for the results.”

The team thought that was too long, especially when it comes to beach monitoring, and deciding if the water is safe for swimming.

That’s one reason they created a nano-sensor, contained inside a buoy, that can continuously measure for environmental contaminants in the water, and send the results out in real time. But what really caught the judge’s attention was the nano-sized batteries that can be recharged with solar panels. They can even be inserted into faucets to detect contaminants like lead.

After nine teams presented, the judges deliberated. It was exciting, and a little nerve-wracking for some of the teams. And then the grand prize winner for ErieHack 2017 was announced: Micro Buoy. The team that developed those nano-sensors and batteries hopped on stage to receive an oversized check for $40,000, and smile for photos.

Micro Buoy impressed the judges with their nano-sized batteries that can be inserted into faucets to detect contaminants like lead.