12 October 2011
By Jeremy Hsu
NEW YORK — No two oil spills are the same. One may take place when a pipeline valve leaks in the frigid North Sea; another can result from an explosion on an oil rig located in the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters. That problem still weighs heavily on the oil industry, even as a $1.4 million contest spurred by the the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history ― the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf last year ― has smashed records for oil-spill cleanup technologies.
The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge focused on skimming technologies capable of cleaning up oil on the surface of the ocean more than twice as fast as past oil recovery rates — above 2,500 gallons per minute and with oil recovery efficiency greater than 70 percent. But the U.S. and Norwegian teams that took the $1 million first prize and the $300,000 second prize, respectively, both warned that there is no one-size-fits-all cleanup technology.
“Methods need to take into account the material, environment, long-term effects of the spill and our actions to clean them up,” said Don Johnson, leader of the winning Elastec/American Marine team.
A groovy solution
Illinois-based Team Elastec/American Marine has been in the business of oil cleanup technologies since its CEO, Donnie Wilson, invented the drum skimmer 20 years ago. The team doubled the original design’s cleanup efficiency by adding grooves that can pick up even more oil as the drum skimmer rotates in the water.
When the X Challenge came up, the U.S. team scrambled with other competitors to fast-track a solution within just two months. Team Elastec/American Marine moved from using barrel-like drums to rows of grooved discs as a way to boost the surface area capable of picking up oil — a change that led to oil recovery rates three times better than the best industry performances.
Now Team Elastec/American Marine aims to adapt its breakthrough to a new line of skimmers for all sorts of oil-spill scenarios, ranging from deep ocean environments to inland estuaries, from fast-flowing rivers to small streams.
“What you’re trying to do is put all the tools in your tool belt possible to deal with those different scenarios,” Wilson told InnovationNewsDaily. “I think this is a significant one here that can allow really high recovery rates in pretty small packages.”
Beating slow currents
Team NOFI of Norway won second prize by deploying the sixth generation of its “Current Buster” technology. (No team qualified for the contest’s third prize.) Team NOFI’s system resembles a giant Slip ‘n’ Slide capable of preventing oil from escaping from under its inflatable body, even in extremely slow currents.
“What we have solved, and what is the main issue with oil spill recovery, is currents,” said Oystein Woie, project engineer for NOFI. “The conventional booms we use today — that we saw in the Gulf — those really fail at speeds through water of less than 1 knot,” or 1.15 mph.
Past versions of the Current Buster technology have worked well in real-world oil spill situations, Woie said. He listed complicating factors such as floating debris, different waves and currents, and thin layers of oil that can all enter the mix.
Such oil cleanup challenges look to grow as the oil industry pushes deeper into an increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean.
“As we go north, there are more challenges we haven’t seen yet and we don’t know about,” Woie said. “So we have a lot of work to do ahead of us, but we will continue our focus on research and development and making the best available technology.”