National Geographic News
Team Elastec’s grooved disk oil skimmer

Four rows of giant grooved discs attack the test oil slick in the system developed by Team Elastec/American Marine of Carmi, Illinois, and Cocoa, Florida.

Photograph courtesy X Prize Foundation

Marianne Lavelle in New York

For National Geographic News

Published October 11, 2011

Team Elastec, an Illinois-based veteran company in the oil spill cleanup business, developed giant grooved discs that skimmed oil more than three times better than the industry standard to capture the $1 million top prize in the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, the X PRIZE Foundation announced today.

In a competition born out of frustration of oil cleanup technology in last year's BP Gulf oil spill, Elastec/American Marine company of Carmi, Illinois, and Cocoa, Florida, deployed a system that slurped oil in the test tank at a rate of 4,670 gallons (17,677 liters) per minute, with an efficiency of 89.5 percent. (Only 10.5 percent of the oily mix in the recovery tanks was water.)

(See all the competitors and their technologies: "Pictures: X PRIZE Contest Seeks Improved Oil Spill Cleanup")

X PRIZE officials said the recovery rate was three times the industry standard, and in fact conventional systems tested in the facility where the competition took place typically achieve 900 gallons (3,400 liters) per minute. And as for typical efficiency: The U.S. government concluded that only 3 percent of the 4.9 million barrels (206 million gallons/780 million liters) spilled in last year's Deepwater Horizon disaster was retrieved by skimmers. It drove home to the world that technology had not advanced since the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 21 years earlier, where only 14 percent of the oil was recovered by cleanup crews.

The X PRIZE Foundation launched the challenge last summer even before the well was permanently capped, when Wendy Schmidt, president of the energy and natural resources-focused Schmidt Family Foundation and wife of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, stepped forward to sponsor the competition. It was designed "to challenge the status quo," said Schmidt at the awards ceremony in New York, "and to do so in a matter of months, not years."

Elastec emerged at the top of set of ten finalists, who were chosen from more than 350 applicants to share in the $1.4 million prize purse.

Second prize of $300,000 went to Norway's Team Nofi, which deployed V-shaped flexible boom to capture 2,712 gallons (10,266 liters) per minute and an efficiency of 83 percent. None of the other teams achieved the competition minimum recovery rate, so the $100,000 third prize was not awarded, and will be returned to the X PRIZE Foundation for further contests focused on marine and ocean environmental issues.  But the third and fourth place teams, OilShaver of Norway and Team Koseq of The Netherlands, both achieved recovery rates and efficiency rates in excess of the 2,000 gallons per minute and with efficiencies of about 90 percent.

The winners were announced in an event center overlooking the East River in Manhattan, only about 20 miles (32 kilomters) north of the saltwater tank on the coast of Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey where the ten teams took turns this summer demonstrating their technologies. The tests were held at  the 2.6-million gallon (10-million liter) tank at the U.S. Government's Ohmsett facility. Run by the Department of Interior but located on the high-security Naval Weapons Station Earle, Ohmsett is the largest saltwater wave tank in North America and the only facility in the world designed for full-scale oil spill response research and training in controlled conditions.

The X CHALLENGE required the largest volume oil ever used in more than four decades of testing at Ohmsett.

Inconceivable Recovery Rate

Elastec already is the largest oil spill cleanup manufacturer in the United States, exporting its systems to 20 countries. Its own Hydro-Fire® Boom was used in last year's BP spill for the controlled burns that actually eliminated more oil from the water oil than skimmers.

For a skimmer to achieve a more than 2,500 gallons (9,500 liters) per minute recovery rate, with an efficiency of 70 percent (no more than 30 percent water in the mix) "wasn't even conceivable" prior to the BP oil spill, Elastec team leader Don Johnson when he stepped up to the podium to accept the prize. But he said if his company would have developed the grooved disc technology before the Macondo well blowout, "We would have been hard-pressed to find a customer willing to buy it."

Only the spill of oil for 87 days from BP's out-of-control well off the coast of Louisiana underscored the need for the technological breakthrough his team achieved. "The lesson we all learned is we need to be prepared," he said. "It created a demand for this equipment."

The oil spill cleanup challenge was well suited to a competition, said Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive of the X PRIZE Foundation, which he said seeks to step into "places where market failures exist and where capitalism has not done its job." Since its founding in 1996, the X PRIZE Foundation has been staging competitions designed to prompt research collaborations to tackle urgent world challenges in energy and environment, education, life sciences, and space and ocean exploration. Its informal motto is "revolution through competition."

"What these teams were able to accomplish is truly remarkable and will have a significant impact on future oil cleanup efforts and better protect our ocean ecosystems and economies," Diamandis said.

Since its founding in 1996, the X PRIZE Foundation has been staging competitions designed to prompt research collaborations to tackle urgent world challenges in energy and environment, education, life sciences, and space and ocean exploration. Its informal motto is "revolution through competition."

The disc skimmers in Elastec's system are four to five times larger than the disc skimmers typical in the industry and they are attached to huge rows of drums. By applying groove technology to drum skimmers they increased the surface area and also made a channel that the oil could adhere to, creating a capillary effect. Johnson said it was also important for the team to develop a vessel that could maneuver well and was capable of high transition speeds to work seamlessly with the grooved disc skimmers.

Norway's Team Nofi took home the second-place prize with a system that corralled oil into the end of its V-Shaped boom, where a separator removes it from water. The team became a favorite among the X PRIZE contest officials for unflappably handling the interruption of its tests on the New Jersey shore in late August when Hurricane Irene struck. The team had to evacuate inland for five days until power could be restored to the test facility.

"Opposed to what almost everybody thinks, the main reason [oil spill cleanup technology] fails is not waves, it is current," said Dag Nilsen, team leader. "Normal oil booms cannot be towed or used in areas with current, since oil escapes [underneath] even if the surface is a smooth as a mirror. This technology solves this current problem. I know we are going to benefit from this system."

Nilsen praised the X CHALLENGE competition "for being a catalyst and a practical motivator for developing better cleanup."

Only The Beginning

David Lawrence, executive vice president for exploration for Shell* Upstream Americas, a supporting sponsor of the competition, struck a similar note. "All of us will benefit from this competition," he said. Shell provided its support, including the test oil and $1.4 million toward rental of the Ohmsett facility because of the importance of the effort to improve industry safety, he said. "The world will need more energy," said Lawrence. "Energy demand is expected to double by 2050. We need to provide that energy, we need to do it safely and we need to do it cleanly. This competition will help us meet those goals."

He stressed that not just the winning technologies, but all of the technologies tested have the possibility of helping improve oil spill response.  The next steps will be more testing in performance outside of the controlled tank environment. "If you think this is the end, this is nowhere near the end," Lawrence told the competitors. "This will be commercialized, further developed and further advanced."

X CHALLENGE benefactor Schmidt said that such advancements were crucial.

The winners were announced in an event center overlooking the East River in Manhattan, only about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of the saltwater tank on the coast of Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey where the ten teams took turns this summer demonstrating their technologies. The tests were held at  the 2.6-million gallon (10-million liter) tank at the U.S. Government's Ohmsett facility. It is the largest saltwater wave tank in North America and the only facility in the world designed for full-scale oil spill response research and training in controlled conditions. Twenty-four countries and numerous private companies have conducted oil spill cleanup testing there.

"We know that today's success is only the beginning," said Schmidt. "And while all you've done is impressive and meaningful and will be a positive addition to the toolkit available in the marketplace, we have not solved the problem of oil spills. We've only created a better band-aid. We haven't addressed the bleeding. We haven't addressed the disease that causes the bleeding.

"We are all participants in a system" whose failures can be catastrophic, she said. Due to "our relentless demand," the oil industry is venturing into more risky environments, including into deep water. "And although the safety of the industry has improved over time, this is a fundamentally dangerous business. It dangerous for people, for ecosystems, for the whole intricate web of life we are only beginning to understand."

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.

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