IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Oil cleanup teams win $1.3 million

A year and a half after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill sparked a months-long environmental crisis, experts from a cleanup company in Illinois have earned a $1 million prize for coming up with a better way to deal with future spills.

Another team from Norway took the $300,000 second prize in the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, which was organized even as the Gulf oil spill was going on. And wouldn't you know it? Yet another oil-spill crisis is unfolding off the coast of New Zealand, even as the awards are being announced today in New York.

The risks posed by offshore drilling and tanker accidents are what prompted Silicon Valley philanthropist Wendy Schmidt to fund the prize program almost as soon as she was asked. Until fossil fuels can be phased out entirely, there's a crying need for better oil-cleanup technologies.

"We're really playing with fire, and I hope we move beyond this," she told me in an interview before today's ceremony, "But in the meantime, it's very encouraging to see so many people who care about the problem."

The $1.4 million Oil Cleanup X Challenge was organized by the X Prize Foundation, which has also managed two $10 million competitions for private spaceflight and more efficient cars, as well as a $2 million contest for lunar lander prototypes. Several other X Prizes are in the works, including the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for private-sector moon missions.

The X Prize Foundation's chairman and CEO, Peter Diamandis, said the oil-cleanup challenge sprang out of a suggestion made by film director James Cameron, a member of the foundation's board of trustees.

"It really was a rapid-response X Challenge," Diamandis told me. "The idea that a $1.4 million purse could attract roughly 350 teams to pre-register was really incredible." 

The competition was designed to encourage the development of cleanup methods that could outdo the current industry standard for speed and efficiency. Ten finalists were selected to go through a series of tests this summer at the OHMSETT oil-spill research facility in New Jersey. To have a chance at winning a prize, the teams had to recover at least 2,500 gallons of oil a minute, with a recovery efficiency of 70 percent or better.

Three times as fast as the previous best

Two teams hit that mark and then some. Illinois-based Team Elastec's grooved-disc skimming system sucked out 4,670 gallons per minute at 89.5 percent efficiency — a recovery rate that was three times as good as the industry's previous best oil recovery rate, tested under controlled conditions. That earned Elastec/American Marine, a well-known manufacturer of oil-cleanup equipment, the million-dollar prize.

Norway's Team NOFI, representing a midsize player in the oil-cleanup game, came in second with a recovery rate of 2,712 gallons per minute at 83 percent efficiency. The competition's $100,000 third prize went unclaimed because no other team hit the minimum requirements.

It might sound strange that the ones to beat the industry standard are industry leaders — but Peter Velez, one of the judges for the competition and global emergency response manager for Shell International Exploration, said the winners found innovative ways to improve on their own records. "None of them brought equipment that they already had built and were selling," Velez told me.

Like mowing a field with a tractor

The keys to success for oil-spill recovery include being able to take in more surface area at once, and moving faster through a given area. "It's like you're mowing a field with a big tractor: The bigger you can make your pass, the more you can do at one time," Velez explained.

For Elastec, that meant building a huge oil-skimming system with four rows of rapidly spinning grooved discs. "It's essentially a box that moves around in the water and captures the oil very well. The more oil you can gather, the more effective you can be," Velez said.

The NOFI team, meanwhile, built a large boom system called the "Current Buster."

"This was a different setup, in that it also had a way to travel in the water at higher speeds than a typical boom can," Velez said. The contraption, which has been compared to a giant "Slip 'N' Slide" sheet, was built to concentrate the oil and slurp it into a recovery device.

Velez said the competition provided an opportunity to see how a wide variety of oil-cleanup systems worked in a standardized setting. Some of the systems are built to work better in calm seas, while others would put in a better performance in choppy waters. "It helps us make the selection when we go to purchase equipment," Velez said.

A $1.3 million 'jump start'

This competition attracted brand-new entrants in the oil-equipment market as well as established players. One of the finalists was Team Vor-Tek, whose members came from a background in metal recycling and adapted a system they originally developed for recovering plastic from the ocean. The X Challenge gave Vor-Tek's entrepreneurs an opportunity to test the waters (so to speak) with a whole new product.

"For a relatively modest investment on my part, we've really jump-started some technological advances that I don't think would have happened otherwise," Schmidt said. 

Although the X Challenge competition is finished, this is by no means the end of Schmidt's environmental efforts. The Schmidt Family Foundation — which Wendy Schmidt and her husband, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, established in 2006 — is backing other environmental initiatives such as the 11th Hour Project and ReMain Nantucket. Wendy Schmidt is looking for still more opportunities to make a difference on the energy/environment front. "We're not done yet," she told me.

The X Prize Foundation, meanwhile, is moving ahead with still more competitions. Last week, the foundation announced that Shell would be the exclusive sponsor for a $9 million, three-year prize program aimed at encouraging the exploration of Earth's frontiers, the world's oceans and outer space.

All about X Prizes and other awards:

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding me to your Google+ circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.