NEW YORK ― BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the world's worst accidental spill in marine waters, forced the oil industry to realize its lack of preparedness for such a disaster. It also spawned a $1.4 million oil cleanup contest aimed at raising the industry standards. Now a U.S. team has claimed victory over challengers from around the world.
Team Elastec/American Marine, based in Illinois, deployed a skimmer with grooved, rapidly spinning discs to clean up oil at a rate of 4,670 gallons per minute from oil-slick water — more than three times faster than the industry's best performance. That earned the team the $1 million first-place prize at an award ceremony held here today (Oct. 11).
"Prior to the Gulf oil blowout, if we would have made this system, we would have been hard-pressed to find customers who would buy it," said Don Johnson, team leader of Elastec/ American Marine. "The lesson that we all learned is that we have to be prepared for the worst. The Gulf oil disaster created a demand for the equipment from all over the world."
The Oil Cleanup X Challenge began with an idea from the X Prize Foundation, a backer of multimillion-dollar contests for private human spaceflight, fuel-efficient cars and landing robots on the moon. As oil continued to gush into the Gulf of Mexico from the April 2010 well rupture, the foundation reached out to benefactors for someone willing to sponsor an oil cleanup contest.
It received a response within 24 hours from Wendy Schmidt, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation. Schmidt's work has typically championed clean energy and better care of natural resources, but she saw a chance to make something good out of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
"We had never ever had such a rapid response from a benefactor so passionate about trying to solve one of the world's grand challenges," said Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation.
The foundation set the goal of recovering oil from seawater
surface at a rate above 2,500 gallons per minute and with an
efficiency of at least 70 percent oil to 30 percent seawater. Out
of 300 starting teams and 10 finalists, only Elastec/ American
Marine and a group from Norway, Team NOFI, exceeded those
standards. Team NOFI won the $300,000 second prize. A $100,000
third-place prize went unclaimed.
Both teams told InnovationNewsDaily they plan to commercialize their technologies soon. Shell, an energy giant that supported the contest with technical expertise, promised to help speed along product deployment to tackle future oil spills.
Schmidt noted that the oil industry's safety has improved over time, but she warned that oil exploration and extraction is a "fundamentally dangerous business."
"In the end, when we prevent more oil from washing ashore, we have only really created a better Band-Aid," Schmidt said. "We haven't stopped the bleeding; we haven't addressed the disease that causes the bleeding; we haven't addressed the system that causes the problem in the first place."
The energy-hungry world's addiction to oil "invites disaster," Schmidt added.
"Only addicts would venture into riskier, more dangerous and volatile environments to extract what they think they cannot live without," Schmidt said.
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