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X challenge: Winners design revolutionary oil cleanup tech

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The X Prize Foundation launched a competition designed to spur innovative oil cleanup solutions out of frustration over the lack of available tech during last year's disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Last year, as efforts to clean up the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed from BP's damaged well floundered, it became painfully obvious how little technology had improved since the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska some 21 years before. Two decades had passed and the world was using the same oil spill recovery technology -- boom and skimmers -- with little success.

Out of this frustration, the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge -- a competition designed to spur innovative solutions to speed the pace of cleaning seawater surface oil -- was born.  The one-year competition, which included field testing, wrapped up this week. Elastec/American Marine of Carmi, Illinois, took the $1 million first prize for its rotating disc design that can recover more than three times more oil than what existing technology can do. Philanthropist Wendy Schmidt provided the prize money.

The prize purse was awarded to teams that were able to recover oil on the sea surface at the highest oil recovery rate (ORR) with an oil recovery efficient (ORE) of more than 70 percent.  Thirty-seven teams officially registered for the competition and that field was narrowed to 10 finalists in May 2011.

Elastec's design can recover 4,670 gallons of oil per minute and its oil recovery efficiency was 89.5 percent. That means just 10.5 percent of the captured oily mixture was water.  Second-place winner NOFI of Norway designed a single vessel unit that collects, separates and stores oil using a flexible V-shaped surface boom towed between two vessels. NOFI, which received $300,000 prize, recovered 2,712 gallons per minute and had an average oil recovery efficiency of 83 percent. Check out videos of both competitors below to learn about their designs.

Innovation in oil spill recovery technology is critical as companies push exploration into deeper water and drill into complex geologic formations. While the world might not (hopefully) experience another well blowout like the BP's, smaller spills occur every year.  Nearly 10,000 accidental spills -- the vast majority of which were less than 50 barrels of oil or 2,100 gallons -- have occurred since 1970, according to the International Tanker Owner Pollution Federation Limited. Check out the interactive map of offshore oil infrastructure developed by the X Challenge.

On a side note: Competitions like the one put on by the X Prize Foundation have become vital tools to drive innovation. For example, Elastec has been in the oil spill recovery business for two decades. The company has improved the technology, but it didn't strive for such lofty goal until the competition materialized. Watch the video below where one of the team members said they weren't even sure if they could hit the minimum goal. In the end, they ended up creating something entirely new and three times more effective.

First place winners Elastec:

The second place winners video:

Photo: BP

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure