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Illinois Team Wins Prize for Innovative Oil Spill Cleanup Technology

A prize launched in July 2010 inspired a competition among entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists to develop innovative, rapidly deployable, and highly efficient methods of cleaning up oil spills from the ocean surface.

Last week, the X PRIZE Foundation and philanthropist Wendy Schmidt announced winners of the $1.4 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE. Launched in July 2010 in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the competition inspired entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists worldwide to develop innovative, rapidly deployable, and highly efficient methods of cleaning up oil spills from the ocean surface. 

More than 350 teams competed from around the world. Submissions were evaluated by a panel of judges, including Hung Nguyen, Emergency Oil Spill Response Coordinator at the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement; Dave Westerholm, Director of the Office of Response and Restoration at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and several respected former U.S. Coast Guardsmen.  The 10 top-ranked proposals – including five submitted by teams in the United States – were subjected to rigorous field testing at Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility, a Department of Interior facility that boasts the largest outdoor saltwater wave/tow facility in North America.

Elastec/American Marine – an Illinois-based manufacturer of oil spill and environmental equipment that uses local talent for nearly all its fabrication – won first place, recovering oil at a rate more than three times the best previously recorded in controlled conditions. This significant advance, which involved grooved, high-surface-area spinning discs that grab large amounts of oil while leaving water behind, is all the more exciting given the potential for the novel mechanical solution to have a real impact on the industry. The judges were impressed by teams’ attention to real-world application, ease of deployment and decontamination, and consistency of performance in varied conditions. (Here is an engaging video of how the team developed its solution.) In addition, the competition’s supporting partner, Shell, has committed to bringing oil experts and other industry leaders in to help move the winning technology to market and promote its use.

We congratulate the winners and all of the finalist teams on their efforts to achieve the important goals of this competition.

And while the prize itself was privately funded, kudos to the Department of Interior and NOAA for bringing their technical expertise to bear in the judging.  By strengthening the prize and its impact, these agencies advanced important shared goals, stimulating the development of new tools that can be brought to bear in future oil spills and generating a treasure trove of data by testing novel technologies under controlled conditions. 

This is just the latest milestone in the Administration’s ongoing work to increase the use of competitions and prizes to spur innovation and solve tough problems as called for by President Obama in his Strategy for American Innovation.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Robynn Sturm Steffen is Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director