X Challenge Winners Blow Old Oil Recovery Tech Out Of The Water

$1.3 million in prize money went out to two winners of the Wendy Schmidt Oil Recovery X Challenge, both of which far exceeded the current standard of oil cleanup technology.


$1.3 million in prize money was awarded to two teams today in New York, winners of the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge. The teams had demonstrated that it was possible to skim oil from the surface of water in much greater quantities and with a higher efficiency than is the current industry standard. The first place prize of $1 million went to Team Elastec of Illinois; the second place prize of $300,000 went to NOFI of Norway. The third place prize of $100,000 was not awarded, since only two teams met the X Challenge’s high standards–an oil recovery rate of at least 2,500 gallons per minute with an efficiency ratio of at least 70% oil-to-water.

The Oil Cleanup X Challenge was announced as the Deepwater Horizon disaster continued to unfold, a disaster which transformed the way the world conceived of a worst-case-scenario oil spill. The X Prize Foundation, a non-profit organization that believes in incentivizing competitions to create radical breakthroughs, convinced Wendy Schmidt of the Schmidt Family Foundation to put up $1.4 million in prize money. The Foundation also donated $1.4 million in operational costs, while Shell put up another $1.4 million to support testing. Three hundred and fifty teams applied to compete; 10 finalists were selected. This summer, those 10 put their innovative designs to the test at Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in Leonardo, New Jersey, where tens of thousands of oil were poured into a seawater-filled pool ten times the size of an Olympic one. (You can see videos of two of the other teams, Crucial and Voraxial, at work here.)

Some of the teams that competed in the challenge had extensive experience in the oil recovery industry; others had none. “We get asked all the time, ‘How long have you been in the oil industry?'” a member of a team called Vor-Tek said in a video shown. “Counting today?” was his response. One team reportedly came up with their design idea on the back of a proverbial, and literal, cocktail napkin.

The winning team, Elastec, has been in the industry for many years, and provided support during the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Their design’s central innovation was to create a spinning, grooved wheel that maximized surface area and leveraged oil’s tendency to cohere, leading to a higher oil recovery rate and efficiency. Team Elastec recovered 4,670 gallons per minute, which is more than three times the industry’s best tested recovery rate, with an efficiency ratio of 89.5% oil-to-water. Though the team’s data was withheld from them during testing, they had a feeling they had scored well: They were filling 5,000 gallon containers in under a minute.

Team Elastec’s leader Don Johnson (center in the image here) accepted his million-dollar jumbo check gladly, adding, though that his team was excited to have workted to “accomplish a goal worth far more than the prize itself.”

The cheesy adage of “everyone being a winner” was in circulation today, but with more sincerity than usual, since each of the teams had developed impressive technology that might find its way to market. “Our hope is that a wide number of these make it to market either in the form tested, or by taking some subset or component” and incorporating it into existing technologies, said Cristin Dorgelo Lindsay of the X Prize Foundation. “Five years from now, any of these technologies could be the big winner,” mused Peter Lehner, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Despite the spectacle of $1.3 million in checks being handed out and the thrill of imagining the revolution of an industry, the day’s most electric moment came in a speech from Wendy Schmidt (pictured here) herself. She stood before the teams gathered to express her delight with what they had achieved. And at the same time, she expressed her belief that they all had only addressed a small part of a problem far too great for the private sector to fully address. She said:

“We know of course that today’s success is only the beginning. And while all that you have done is impressive and meaningful… we have not solved the problem of oil spills. In the end…we’ve really only created a better Band-Aid. We haven’t stopped the bleeding, we haven’t addressed the disease that causes the bleeding, and we haven’t addressed the system that produces the problem in the first place.”

She went on: “Only addicts would venture into riskier, more dangerous and volatile environments to extract with what they think they cannot live without. … and while the overall safety of the industry has improved over time, and that’s a good thing, this is a fundamentally dangerous business, extracting volatile hydrocarbons under high pressure in pristine environments … so with 4,000 active drilling platforms in the Gulf, another accident is just waiting to happen.”

[Image: Flickr user DVIDSHUB]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.