The skimming system tripled the previous best effort in oil collection.
The winning entry in the Oil Spill Cleanup X Prize is a vast improvement on existing skimming technology.
Credit: Courtesy of the X PRIZE Foundation
The X Prize Foundation today announced the winners of its annual US$1.4 million challenge to stimulate the development of improved oil collection systems for use during spills. The victorious team nearly doubled the competition’s minimum success threshold and more than tripled the best previous efforts.
During last year’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, conventional oil harvesting techniques were found to be woefully inadequate. According to estimates by the US government, a massive mobilization of ships could only extract between 3% and 4% of the 650 million liters of oil that entered the waters of the Gulf.
The X Prize Foundation, based in Playa Vista, California, launched its oil cleanup challenge in October 2010, in response to perceived shortcomings. The foundation also runs award programs that encourage the development of commercial space flight and other technologies. Wendy Schmidt, president of the environmental charity Schmidt Family Foundation in Palo Alto, California, personally funded the oil prize.
A total of 37 groups submitted full proposals to the contest. Of these, a panel of judges chose ten to advance to a second phase. The judges considered the potential oil collection rates of the proposals, along with whether the technologies would be rapidly deployable and suitable for use at the offshore source of a spill.
Each finalist team had about six weeks to complete their systems and bring them to the U.S. National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility (OHMSETT) in Leonardo, New Jersey, for controlled testing on July and August this year. OHMSETT, a government facility, is home to the largest open-air saltwater wave tank in North America and is the United States’ premier testing facility for oil spill remediation equipment.
The Elastech team.
Credit: Courtesy of the X PRIZE Foundation
The winning designs aimed to improve conventional harvesting methods. A technique commonly used in oil spills uses drums or discs lined with materials that attract oil; these devices roll through the water collecting the oil, which is then removed with scrapers and transferred to collection containers. But the surface area of the drums or discs severely restricts the amount of oil that can be collected.
Elastec, an established provider of oil cleaning equipment based in Carmi, Illinois, won the competition with a system that overcame this problem by cutting groove patterns into the sides of the discs to increase surface area. The team then built a single large pickup unit made of 4 rows of 16 disks each, which they believe can be applied to work effectively in a number of different environments.
“They made a really fundamental change in technology for this competition,” says Cristin Dorgelo Lindsay, vice president of prize operations for the X Prize Foundation.
The result was an impressive amount of oil from the OHMSETT tank. To complete the challenge, teams had to collect more than 9,400 liters of oil per minute with an efficiency of 70% or more. The Elastec system collected nearly 18,000 liters per minute at 89.5% efficiency, nearly three times the best recovery rate ever recorded during controlled testing. The team got a $1 million prize for first place.
“We’re elated,” says Donnie Wilson, CEO of Elastec. “Entering this contest and ultimately winning is very important. We want to keep that momentum going in the industry and make sure we have the best products available.”
The company plans to have a commercially available version for coastal waters within 60 days and another for offshore use in about a year.
A second prize of $300.00 went to the Norwegian Fisheries Industry (NOFI), a Tromsø-based provider of oil cleaning equipment. This team advanced a system called Current Buster, which uses a semi-rigid boom to corral oil for collection by existing skimmer systems. It adapts well to movement and can therefore be towed much more quickly than pen systems already in use. NOFI collected almost 10,300 liters of oil with an efficiency of 83%.
The competition included a $100,000 prize for third place, but no other group exceeded the required performance threshold.
“I think this has been a leap in technology and can stimulate additional thinking, which is a wonderful thing,” says Ed Levine, science support coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration, who is handles oil spills. . “They did not create the final solution, but they took a step forward.”