X PRIZE Contest Finds Breakthrough Oil Cleanup Technology
A revolutionary method for cleaning up oil spills much faster than existing technologies.
Elastec, United States
An innovation competition is a tried and tested way of providing new concepts for a company’s product pipeline or to solve technical challenges, with contests ranging from the relatively easy to seemingly intractable problems. When thinking has stagnated and fresh ideas are needed, competitions are powerful catalysts that ignite radical new approaches.
They attract the attention of innovators, researchers, entrepreneurs start-ups and the general public among others. Their motivations include financial reward, exposure and recognition by a peer group or a wider community.
Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE
Among the most visible open innovation challenges are those hosted by the nonprofit X PRIZE Foundation. Between 2010 and 2011 the educational organization and “innovation engine” organized the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE to find innovative ways to speed up the clearing of seawater surface oil that results from oil spillage from tankers, oil platforms and other sources.
The competition was held in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and was a call for breakthrough methods that could be deployed in the short term to quickly clean up vast quantities of oil before they reach vulnerable shorelines. Current technologies are not up to the task and the scale of the challenge was monumental.
“We’re asking a team to exceed 2,500 gallons a minute [oil recovery rate], more than double the rate ever seen in controlled testing conditions. That’s a huge leap,” said Francis Beland, Vice President, Prize Development, X PRIZE Foundation.
Submissions and Testing
More than 350 teams entered the contest and ten were selected to test their concepts at OHMSETT, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility.
Inside the saltwater testing tank, each team’s equipment was put through its paces cleaning up oil in calm water and machine-generated wave conditions. Each team made six runs, three in calm water and three in wave conditions and they had to exceed an average performance of more than 2,500 gallons of oil recovered per minute with efficiency of at least 70% pure oil to water.
The contest was won by Team Elastec/American Marine for an oil skimming device that’s capable of removing oil from the surface of water four times faster than conventional methods.
The winning technology consists of grooved plastic discs that spin in the water and attract oil. The discs create a channel that the oil adheres to, like a vacuum that pulls the oil into the groves. Scrapers then remove the oil and transfer it to containers. Elastec is an established supplier of oil cleanup equipment and had used their technology before. What they did for this competition was scale it up. The team built a single collection unit consisting of 4 rows of 16 discs each.
During the test the Elastec system scooped up 18,000 liters per minute with an efficiency rate of 89.5%. The company picked up $1 million for their ingenuity.
The second prize and a check for $300,000 was awarded to a Norwegian team for its V-shaped flexible boom that captured 10,266 liters per minute with an efficiency of 83%.
A third place check for $100,000 was not awarded as no other team passed the required performance threshold.
In less than one year, this open innovation competition had achieved what the industry had failed to do in more than 20 years of trying, finding a technology that vastly exceeds industry standards in oil pickup.
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