Last summer, as sweet crude oil gushed unabated into the Gulf of Mexico, the overriding emotion was one of frustration. It wasn't just directed at the well owner, BP, or at rig-builders Transocean and Halliburton, or even the government and its difficult-to-understand oil flow estimates. The inability to shut off the well was one thing — but why, in an era of nanotubes and autonomous robots and invisibility cloaks, couldn't we just clean it up?
Sure, skimmer ships, containment booms and dispersants deployed immediately, aiming to capture oil gushing from the blown well beneath the destroyed Deepwater Horizon rig. But week after frustrating week, the best available technologies failed to make much of an impact. But some people saw opportunity in this disaster — a chance to prove a new idea, or maybe build upon an old concept. The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, under the auspices of the X Prize Foundation, encouraged competitors to design new oil-removal technologies that would dramatically improve the state of the art. Today in New York, we found out just how far some friendly competition and a tidy sum can push the technological envelope.
Nearly 400 applicants were narrowed down to 10 finalist teams, who were invited to test their techniques at the nation's oil spill test bed, the Department of the Interior’s Ohmsett facility at the Naval Weapons Station Earle in Leonardo, N.J. The minimum criteria to be eligible for the prize: a technology capable of an average oil recover efficiency (ORE) of more than 70 percent—that is, the mixture extracted from the water had to be 70 percent oil—and an oil recover rate (ORR) of 2,500 gallons per minute. That’s roughly twice what the oil cleanup industry’s best technology can currently recover. The leading team was promised a $1 million reward, while second and third place would receive $300,000 and $100,000 respectively.
This morning in New York, just minutes before revealing the winners of the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, Schmidt herself made what would prove to be the understatement of the event: “This is a powerful return on a relatively modest investment,” she said knowingly. A few minutes later we would find out just how right she was. Second place winner NOFI of Norway demonstrated technology that extracted 2,712 gallons per minute with an ORE of 83 percent. But audible gasps went up when the winning numbers hit the presentation screen. Team Elastec/American Marine had blown the competition out of the water, recovering 4,670 gallons per minute at efficiencies averaging 89.5 percent.
In other words, Elastec/American Marine nearly doubled the gallons-per-minute requirement for the X Prize. But perhaps a better way of looking at it is through the lens of the state-of-the-art. In just one year’s dedicated time, NOFI found a way to double the efficiency of the industry’s best available surface oil skimmers. Elastec/American Marine tripled it, doing more in a handful of months than private industry had done in the two decades since the Exxon Valdez disaster.
It wasn’t easy. Throughout August and September, the teams huddled at Ohmsett for 10 days each, removing oil with skimmers, booms, spinning axial devices and even a "shaver," testing amid calm seas and turbulent waves. Hurricane Irene briefly interrupted testing, and lent an air of harsh reality to NOFI’s efforts.
Each team completed a minimum of six tests, three in calm conditions and three with waves. Once the team was ready to go, the judges would wave a green flag to give the go-ahead, and Ohmsett staff would start the stopwatch, open the valves and let the group get to work.
The competitors included a retired police inspector; two generations of one family; a tattoo artist; a former pro basketball player and several other entrepreneurs and inventors. Each team had its own judges, who consisted of industry reps, Coast Guard officials and marine conservation experts, examining each system according to various criteria, she added.
"It was a little bit like summer camp. People from all over the world get to come and hang out at this Navy base in New Jersey," Lindsay said.
But unlike summer camp, the work being done there was anything but carefree. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the weeks and months of unchecked pollution of gulf ecosystems placed a new urgency on finding ways to remediate waters fouled by man-made disasters, and the X Prize offered the financial impetus as well as the benchmarks for success that drove the search for better technologies.
“Nobody thought about an oil spill such as the Gulf oil spill, so nobody was asking for this,” Elastec/American Marine team leader Don Johnson said. “Nobody was asking for 2,500 gallons per minute.” Things like the X Prize are critical to pushing technology forward, Johnson said, because when there’s no industry demand for a technology and no customer to buy it, it doesn’t get built. And given the nature of disasters like Deepwater Horizon, the time when demand peaks—during an actual oil spill—is not the time to be developing and testing new technologies. During the Deepwater Horizon spill Johnson and his team were out on the gulf corralling oil with last-gen technologies rather than building new technologies in the workshop, he notes. They would have been better served if the new technology had already been on the shelf.
To tackle these kinds of challenges, we need to be proactive rather than reactive, Johnson said. Deepwater Horizon serves as a stark reminder of that. And just in case that’s not clear, there’s $1 million to drive the point home.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.