When BP’s Deepwater Horizon well started gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it soon became clear that neither BP nor the US government were equipped to deal with such a disaster. Next time (sadly, there almost certainly will be a next time), that hopefully won’t be the case – a company from Illinois won the top prize at the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge last week for producing a revolutionary machine that skims oil out of water four times faster than the previous industry standard. Team Elastec/American Marine took home a $1 million prize for the oil skimmer, which uses a series of grooved plastic discs with a scraper at the top to separate oil from water.
Oil is attracted to plastic, and as the discs of the Elastec machine spin they create a channel for the oil to adhere to, so that it can be lifted out of the water. “That’s the elegance of this machine,” Elastec project manager Don Johnson told NPR. “It sounds like it’s just so basic, but it picks the oil off, puts it in a trough and we pump it away, and that’s all there is to it.” And unlike other oil-skimming technologies, the Elastec design works in both waves and ocean current.
The Oil Cleanup X Challenge, which was launched by activist Wendy Schmidt, offered the $1 million prize to the team that could skim oil from water the fastest. The ten finalists put their designs to the test in a large saltwater tank operated by the US government at Sandy Hook Bay, NJ. In test runs, the Elastec design siphoned off oil at a rate of 4,670 gallons per minute, with an unprecedented efficiency rate of 89.5 percent. (The current industry standard is just 1,100 gallons per minute.) The goal set for the X Challenge was to remove oil at a rate of 2,500 gallons per minute, which Elastec nearly doubled.