X Prize's $1.4 Million Contest Aims to Pump Up Oil Cleanup Tech

oil cleanup technology
Credit: X Prize Foundation

The Deepwater Horizon disaster that spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico became a crude example of how drilling for oil is risky business, but that doesn't mean cleaning up future messes must remain business as usual. Ten teams have begun trial runs of new oil spill cleanup technologies as part of an X Prize Challenge worth $1.4 million.

Winning technologies must efficiently skim an inch of oil off a surface area longer than an NFL football field to get a shot at $1 million for first place, $300,000 for second place and $100,000 for third place. But more important, each of the 10 competitors from the U.S., Norway, Finland and the Netherlands — selected out of 300 applicants — can win recognition that may lead to commercialization of their technologies.

"The equipment that gets the highest recognition will probably be what starts getting used by oil spill response organizations and oil companies," said Peter Velez, global emergency response manager for Shell International Exploration and Production.

The contest is one of the latest organized by the X Prize Foundation, which has also arranged competitions for the most gas-efficient cars and landing robots on the moon. Testing began in July and continues until October at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey.

Pushing for better standards

Prize money for the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge comes from The Schmidt Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on clean energy. Shell is acting as a supporting sponsor by paying for the technological components of the tests, and by promising to help winning technologies find a market in the oil industry.

"What this competition is doing is to help the manufacturers come up with new ideas, new equipment, and demo it," Velez told InnovationNewsDaily. "The teams competing here still own their own tech, and they're the ones marketing the equipment."

BP's Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 spurred Shell's involvement in the X Challenge to try setting a higher standard for the oil companies, Velez said. He represents the only oil industry judge on the competition's panel of former U.S. Coast Guard members, government agency officers and oil cleanup experts.

Shell has seen its own share of controversy this month. In early August, it accepted full responsibility for two oil spills in the Ogoniland region of Nigeria that took place in 2008. A new United Nations report also criticized the company in its assessment of regional spills that may take more than $1 billion and up to 30 years to clean up.

One of the company's rigs in the North Sea also began leaking oil on Aug. 12, but workers succeeded in stopping it after 1,500 barrels of oil spilled. That incident has led to criticism from environmental groups opposed to Shell's plans for drilling in the Arctic waters of the Beaufort Sea near Alaska.

Pushing for innovation

Much of the cleanup technology resembles existing mechanical skimmers that can actively or passively collect oil. Newer skimmers may even deploy from ships on umbilical cables to have a wider reach.

The 10 teams must show that their technologies can recover oil from the New Jersey facility's testing tank at a projected rate of about 35,714 barrels of oil per day — about three times faster than what existing equipment can do. They must also show an average oil recovery efficiency rate of at least 70 percent, based on the ratio of oil recovered compared to liquid recovered.

All results will be documented and released publicly so that the oil industry overall can learn, Velez said. Many oil companies have already been watching the ongoing X Challenge closely to see how well it does in spurring new innovation.

Shell already has its own internal think tank — called the "game-changer team" — which gives seed money to innovative ideas from both inside and outside the company. Velez hopes the X Challenge can give both Shell and the oil industry a better idea of how to improve on their business.

"This is the first time a competition in this area has been done this way," Velez said. "If this response is favorable, it will be a new way to look for new technologies and ideas to think-tank things to the next level."

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. You can follow InnovationNewsDaily senior writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.