When the Exxon Valdez was wrecked off the coast of Alaska in 1989, cleanup crews were able to recover only about 14 percent of the spilled oil. Twenty-one years later, when the Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico, recovery efforts had improved shockingly little: Responders were still burning, skimming, and directly trapping the oil coming out of the wellhead, and they captured just one quarter of the oil that spilled.
An Illinois-based company called Elastec/American Marine has something better. Its new rotating-disc design can recover a staggering 4670 gallons of oil per minute, more than three times what existing technology can do. Its design was also extremely efficient: What it sucked up was 89.5 percent oil (and just 10.5 percent water). And now the design has won them $1 million: Elastec was announced today as the winner of the Oil Cleanup X Challenge.
The X Prize Foundation—which in 2004 offered the Ansari X Prize to spur the private spaceflight industry and also sponsors automotive contests—started the competition just after the Deepwater Horizon accident to push for better oil-cleanup technology. “Our systems are not designed well enough to not fail,” says philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, who donated the $1.4 million purse.
The competition challenged the 350 initial entrants to create rapidly deployable designs that could scoop up oil faster than 2500 gallons per minute, with at least a 70 percent efficiency. At the outset, Elastec was skeptical that these numbers were achievable. But the company’s design had an oil-removal rate that nearly doubled the rest of the competitors’ (the next-best team, NOFI, got up to 2712 gallons per minute). “We knew that we had really high rates, but we had no idea if anyone else would do as well” Elastec CEO Donnie Wilson told PM today. Elastec’s design consists of rows of grooved discs that spin as the device moves through oil-soaked water. Since oil is much more viscous than water, Wilson says, the oil sticks to the disc’s grooves but the water flings off. “If you’ve ever gotten cooking oil on your hands, you’ll have noticed that it’s quite hard to get off because it gets down in your pores,” Wilson says. “This is the same sort of effect on a much larger scale.” The device also has the advantage of speed: It chugs along at a brisk 3 knots.
As for the contest’s requirements be scalable and consumer-ready, Wilson estimates that within a year Elastec will have at least a dozen different units ready to go. Engineers will scale the designs to fit different environments: small ones for inland cleanups, large for open water. The device Elastec entered in the X Challenge was 10 feet wide, 30 feet long, and weighed 7000 pounds. Wilson estimates that a commercial unit at this size will sell for about a half-million dollars.
Elastec and the rest of the teams had less than two months to turn its concepts into finished products. After that, the company tested its creations at Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response, Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in Leonardo, N.J.—the only facility where full-scale oil-spill-response tests can be conducted. At Ohmsett, the teams underwent three smooth-water and three wave-condition tests, and their average performance was submitted to the competition judges. The teams fought through long hours and Hurricane Irene during the testing phase.
Elastec took the top prize, but there were many other successful designs. The second-place, $300,000 winner, NOFI, from Norway, came up with a V-shaped design that looks like a giant Slip ‘N Slide. It channels the polluted water down to a separator, which removes the water. NOFI’s design sucked up 2712 gallons of material per minute with oil amounting to 83 percent of the recovered sample.
The World Energy Council predicts that energy demand will double by 2050. As demand for oil continues to grow, Schmidt says, “Another accident is just waiting to happen.” When it does, new and better technology will be ready.