By Amanda Mascarelli

With efforts to cap, contain and disperse the Deepwater Horizon spill failing to keep pace with the continuing gush of oil, a technical fix is desperately needed. Crowdsourcing--tapping into ideas and technologies thought up by the public at large--has emerged as a key approach to the emergency.

On June 28, for instance, the X Prize Foundation in Playa Vista, Calif.--a non-profit institute that awards prizes for technological innovation--announced that it is considering offering between $3 million and $10 million for a viable solution to the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

BP launched its own appeal within a week of the explosion, sparking thousands of submissions from around the world. But critics say the foundation's call, some two months on, amounts to little more than a public-relations exercise.

Mopping up

So far, BP's alternative response technology (ART) team has received more than 116,500 submissions for suggestions and engineering innovations to help stem the flow of oil or mop up the damage. More than 300 of these are being considered for field-testing and deployment, and more than 20 have already been tested or are currently under evaluation, says ART technical manager Mike Cortez.

The ideas hail from "just about every group around," says Cortez--from lay people to industry experts to academics.

In answer to those who claim that ART is merely window-dressing, BP insists it takes outside suggestions seriously. "This is an unprecedented event in the Gulf and it calls for unprecedented solution-finding," says Hunter Rowe, Interagency Alternative Technology Assessment Program (IATAP) liaison to ART. IATAP is a newly established federal crowdsourcing program overseen by the US Coast Guard and working in parallel with BP's ART team.

"We view the activity as absolutely essential to our ultimate goal to restore the Gulf to its former state," adds Rowe.

Submissions to the ART website are logged in a database and funnelled into two categories: control at source and clean-up. After a triage process to see whether an idea has already been considered, those that progress are reviewed by some 50 experts in bioremediation, oil-spill technology, and mechanical engineering and separation.

BP says that some of the ideas from the ART program will be used in the clean-up. Several companies, for instance, suggested products to separate seaweed from the oil and water emulsion or 'mousse' produced by a slick. "The fact is that there is no way to do that right now--none," says Rowe. "The only way that that portion of the Gulf is going to be restored is through a program like this."

Another product attracting media attention is a centrifuge for separating oil from water made by Ocean Therapy Solutions, which is based in Metairie, La., and co-founded by actor Kevin Costner. The system, which can clean nearly 800,000 liters per day, is several times faster and more efficient than others on the market, says Rowe. BP plans to deploy 32 in the Gulf.

Closed process?

Soon after the spill began, Dwayne Spradlin, president and chief executive of InnoCentive, a company based in Waltham, Mass., that specializes in crowdsourcing, approached top-ranking BP officials about collaborating on solutions. InnoCentive is a network of some 200,000 problem solvers.

Weeks later, in early June, Spradlin received word from BP that they might be interested in working with InnoCentive. However, after reviewing the company's policies, BP told Spradlin in an e-mail that InnoCentive's agreements were "too complex and burdensome," he says.

Spradlin says that BP has mainly been interested in packaged solutions provided by vendors. "I will give them credit for looking at a number of solutions," he says. "But I will also tell you they have run a closed process and they have now missed in my assessment almost six weeks of potential to find brand new innovative ideas that are not currently commercialized, by outside providers."

BP refutes this. "We are very open to new ideas and are evaluating many new, innovative ideas through our process," says Cortez.

Businesses such as Procter & Gamble and Xerox, and government bodies like NASA usually approach InnoCentive for help in finding solutions to their own internal needs. These challenges can carry cash rewards of up to $1 million.

InnoCentive partners with a number of companies, including Nature Publishing Group, The Economist and the Rockefeller Foundation, to promote its open innovation challenges. InnoCentive's life-sciences challenges and the oil-spill challenge are posted on Nature's website. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

In late April, when the magnitude of the spill became apparent, InnoCentive posted an emergency-response challenge on behalf of BP, with no cash reward. "We took the liberty of putting up this oil spill challenge, being convinced that as soon as BP...began to realize what the gravity of the situation was, they would be looking for every possible solution from professional problem solvers they could find," said Spradlin.

InnoCentive's challenge, which has a July 16 deadline, has so far attracted over 2,400 submissions, just under half of which are actual solutions and many of which could be readily deployed, says Spradlin.

One idea emerging from the InnoCentive challenge was to tackle below-surface oil by linking barges draped with heavy material to form a protective barrier around Louisiana's most vulnerable wetlands. In the past, InnoCentive problem-solvers have collaborated with the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, Arkansas, on clean-up challenges related to the Exxon Valdez spill, and came up with solutions such as novel boom systems.

Lack of transparency

But Spradlin says BP could have provided more information to help the open-innovation process for the Gulf spill. "Most of the people in our network had to go on huge fishing expeditions to construct what the configuration of equipment was on the ocean floor," he says. If this ocean-floor data had been made available five weeks ago to those outside BP, he adds, "imagine how the world might have been able to respond".

"This process could have been managed expertly from day one, with global communities partnering with BP to find solutions--virtually side-by-side with the responders," Spradlin adds.

Experts also say that some solutions could have been refined years ago, given adequate funding for this type of research and development. "The bottom line of all of this is that there hasn't been very much money put the federal government or industry," says Nancy Kinner, an environmental engineer and co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Spradlin notes that corporations have less incentive to invest in disaster prevention, planning and remediation than in business growth. But, he says, "oil-clean-up is a fact of life for the oil and gas industry. The fact that we are scrambling to find good skimming technologies is a bit difficult to fathom and truly unacceptable."