Which oil-mopping technology will win $1.4m X prize?
By David Shiga A US foundation is offering $1.4 million in prize money for new technologies to clean up oil spills. Prompted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, philanthropist Wendy Schmidt decided to fund the prize. The X Prize Foundation, based in Playa Vista, California, will organise the competition. The foundation rose to prominence in 2004 when another of its prizes led to the development of SpaceShipOne, a private, reusable spacecraft. Competitors will be invited to test their technologies in 2011 in a 203- by 20-metre tank owned by the US government’s Minerals Management Service. A moving bridge that simulates a boat pulling cleanup equipment and a wave generator create ocean-like conditions in the New Jersey-based facility, says Dave DeVitis, a lab engineer. A wide range of new technologies could help. Di Gao of the University of Pittsburgh has demonstrated a filter that attracts water and repels oil, allowing the water to pass through while separating out the oil. Actor Kevin Costner has funded the development of a centrifuge-based system to separate oil from water. The technology, created by Louisiana-based firm Ocean Therapy Solutions, has already been deployed in the Gulf of Mexico, however, so it is not clear whether it could enter the competition, which is meant to spark new solutions. Another approach is to build boats with holes in their hulls to skim oil from the ocean surface and collect it within. A huge tanker ship called A Whale was modified by Taiwanese shipping company TMT to collect oil in this way. It was sent to the Gulf of Mexico but was never used because of its disappointing performance in tests. Steve Potter of SL Ross Environmental Research, a Canadian oil-spill consulting company, says he thinks there are ways to improve on existing cleanup technologies. But he did not want to elaborate in case he decides to compete for the purse: “If I tell you my idea, then I won’t win the prize.” More on these topics: