Ten Oil Sucking Machines Compete For $1.4 Million In X Prize Money

The latest X Challenge asks for a device that can remove 2,500 gallons of oil from water in a minute.


The Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill made it very clear that while we have an amazing ability to get oil into the ocean, we have a much harder time getting it out. So X Prize launched the $1.4 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge (a challenge is a truncated version of a normal X Prize) to inspire engineers to get oil out of seawater quickly and easily. The 10 finalists were announced today.

The contest is looking for machines that can recover at least 70% oil from the sea-water
surface at a rate of more than 2,500 gallons per
minute; Deepwater horizon spilled about 210 million gallons. The judges looked at 37 different entries, and have since narrowed it down to 10 finalists. One of the judges–Donald A. Toenshoff, Jr, executive vice president of the Marine Spill Response Corporation–said that five of the teams were well-known in the world of oil removal, while five others were newcomers. Which is just what X Prize wants, says Cristin Dorgelo Lindsay, vice president of prize operations at X PRIZE. “What we’re seeing here–much like in our other competitions–is mix
of fully novel systems as well as systems that take technologies that we
know work today that are combined or improved or advanced in a new

What was most important in narrowing down the entrants was safety and scalability–the X Challenge wants to be able to deploy the winner quickly. But most important was feasibility: “Dealing with Mother Nature does not often lend itself to conditions in a test tank,” says Toenshoff. They’re looking for devices that can go into the ocean and deal with conditions, not experimental projects.

Now that the finalists have been chosen, it’s time for the testing: Over the summer, teams will take their devices to the The National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey, where an inch of oil will be poured into a 700-foot long tank. Then the cleaning begins. They’ll do one test on calm water and then one of waves, which will be what really puts the systems to the test. The winner will receive $1 million (second and third will receive the remaining $400,000) and, given the oil-cleaning backgrounds of most of the judging panel, a good shot at being scaled and deployed during future oil spills.

That’s the true point of the X Prize, to use prize money to spur rapid and needed innovation. “That shows the benefit of the challenge,” says Toenshoff. “You’re able to generate excitement and bring people who may have a better mousetrap out of the woodwork.”

[Image: Flickr user Lagohsep]


About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Impact section, formerly Have an idea for a story? You can reach him at mclendaniel [at]