Open Innovation: Exxon Valdez Cleanup

Published Oct-21-09

With no oil industry background John Davis came up with a solution to a problem that had baffled scientists for decades. His idea enabled crude oil to be removed from arctic waters, years after the Exxon Valdez had spilled its load.

John Davis, United States

The Story:

Open Innovation: Exxon Valdez Cleanup Despite extensive cleanup efforts more than 26 thousand US gallons of oil remained at the bottom of Prince William Sound, nearly twenty years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground.

The oil tanker had got into trouble after hitting Bligh Reef which split its side open. 11 million US gallons of crude oil came gushing out which contaminated 2,080 kilometers of coastline.

Over the years multiple attempts to remove the oil from the sea floor failed. Dispersants, high pressure hot water, and mechanical cleanup with booms and skimmers were tried, but still the slick was going nowhere.

Cold temperatures rendered the oil too thick to be able to be moved by standard pumping equipment. Some of the best brains in the cleanup business worked on the problem but the answer remained elusive.

Can You Fix It?

So, with a desperate need to find a solution the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, a non-profit organization decided to cast their net wider and turned to the public for help. They posted their problem in 2007 and the challenge was to come up with a way of separating frozen oil from water on the oil spill recovery barges. And within three months more than two dozen potentially viable solutions from all over the world had come in.

The winning solution came from John Davis, an oil industry outsider. He had spent some time in the construction industry and as he studied the challenge specs he realized that some of what he had learned there could help fix the problem that had boggled the minds of the oil industry scientists for decades.

Pouring Concrete

Davis had some experience of pouring concrete. It involves a tool that vibrates the construction material to keep it in liquid form so that it can easily flow into cracks and crevices. It also helps restore flow to concrete that prematurely sets. He came to the conclusion that ensuring that oil remains a liquid in sub-Arctic waters is really not that different from keeping cement a liquid when you want to pour it into foundations.

His answer was to use slightly modified pneumatic concrete vibrators to keep the oil water slush moving as a fluid. Initially Davis wasn’t too sure he had found the answer. He thought it was almost too obvious, but no one else was thinking along these lines. It is a perfect illustration of how going outside of the usual channels to solve a problem can reap rewards. This outsider’s viewpoint had provided to be invaluable.

Big Money Prize

Davis pocketed the $20,000 prize, although this was not his motivation. He wanted to help tackle a major environmental problem, and he is a habitual problem solver who thrives on the satisfaction of creating solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Davis used part of his prize money to finance research involved in environmental cleanup and soil remediation, and to fly to Alaska to watch his innovation in action.

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