By Mark Schrope of Nature magazine

The X Prize Foundation today announced the winners of its year-long, US$1.4-million challenge to spur development of improved oil-collection systems for use during spills. The victorious team almost doubled the competition's minimum threshold for success, and more than tripled previous best efforts.

During last year's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, conventional oil-collection techniques were found to be woefully inadequate. According to US government estimates, a massive mobilization of vessels was able to skim up only 3-4% of the 650 million liters of oil that entered the Gulf's waters.

The X Prize Foundation, based in Playa Vista, California, launched its oil clean-up challenge in October 2010, in response to the perceived deficiencies. The foundation also runs award programs that encourage development of commercial space flight and other technologies. Wendy Schmidt, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation environmental charity in Palo Alto, California, personally funded the oil prize.

A total of 37 groups submitted full proposals to the competition. From these, a judging panel chose ten to advance to a second phase. The judges considered the proposals' potential oil-collection rates, along with whether technologies would be rapidly deployable and suitable for use at the source of a spill far off shore.

Testing times

Each finalist team had about six weeks to complete their systems and get them to the US National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility (OHMSETT) in Leonardo, New Jersey, for controlled trials in July and August this year. OHMSETT, a government facility, hosts the largest outdoor saltwater wave tank in North America and is the United States' main testing facility for oil-spill remediation equipment.

The winning designs aimed to improve on conventional collection methods. One technique commonly deployed at oil spills uses drums or discs coated with oil-attracting materials; these devices roll through the water picking up oil, which is then removed by scrapers and transferred to collection containers. But the surface area of the drums or discs severely constrains the amount of oil that can be collected.

Elastec, an established supplier of oil clean-up equipment based in Carmi, Illinois, won the competition with a system that overcame this problem by cutting groove patterns into the sides of the discs to increase the surface area. The team then built a single large collection unit made of 4 rows of 16 discs each, which it believes can be applied to work effectively in various different environments.

"They made a really fundamental shift in the technology for this competition," says Cristin Dorgelo Lindsay, the X Prize Foundation's vice-president of prize operations.

The result was an impressive haul of oil from the OHMSETT tank. To complete the challenge, teams had to collect more than 9,400 liters of oil per minute at 70% efficiency or more. The Elastec system gathered nearly 18,000 liters per minute at 89.5% efficiency, almost three times the best recovery rate ever previously recorded during controlled tests. The team scooped a $1-million prize for first place.

A $300,00 second prize went to the Norwegian Fishing Industry (NOFI), an oil clean-up equipment supplier based in Tromsø. This team advanced a system called Current Buster, which uses a semi-rigid boom to corral oil for collection by existing skimmer systems. It adapts well to movement and so can be towed much more rapidly than corral systems already in use. NOFI collected almost 10,300 liters of oil at 83% efficiency.

The competition included a $100,000 prize for third place, but no other group passed the required performance threshold.

"My guess is this has been a leap in technology and it may spur additional thinking, which is a wonderful thing," says Ed Levine, a scientific support coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration, which handles oil spills. "They didn't create the final solution but they took a step forward."

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on October 11, 2011.