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60-Second Earth

Disc Spins Its Way to $1-Million Oil Spill Cleanup Prize

Is there a better way to clean up the next oil spill disaster? David Biello reports

When oil started spewing from BP's Macondo well in April 2010, there weren't too many options for cleaning it up. Concentrated slicks on the ocean surface could be set ablaze. Booms kept oil off the shores, as long as the waves stayed calm. And chemical dispersants of unknown toxicity could be sprayed to break up oil patches.

But thanks to the Wendy Schmidt X Prize that won't be true next time. A company from Illinois known as Elastec / American Marine won the $1-million first prize by tripling previous cleanup rates.

Over 10 weeks this summer, 10 finalists out of 350 entrants demonstrated their technology at the largest outdoor saltwater wave test facility in North America. Elastec's Grooved Disc Skimmer scooped up 4,670 gallons of oil per minute and didn't leave much behind.

The machine looks like a giant, thick, grooved vinyl record spinning at high speed to capture nearly 90 percent of the oil on the waters. And there's no shortage of oil spills for it to work on. The latest is underway in New Zealand, as a stranded cargo ship leaks heavy oil onto a coral reef and local beaches.

—David Biello

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