A passing wind set Elastec/American Marine founders Donnie Wilson and Jeff Cantrell on the path to developing oil spill recovery technology.
The founders of the Illinois-based company, now one of the largest manufacturers of oil spill equipment in North America, had responded to a small oil spill, where they saw the equipment being used to recover oil was not working well.
Wilson asked Cantrell to throw him a five-gallon plastic bucket to help in the recovery, but the wind caught the bucket and blew it into the water instead.
"Our goal as a company is zero harm to the environment and to people," said Dave Lawrence
As the wind turned the bucket, Wilson noticed oil stuck to the side of the bucket. The bucket spurred development of the barrel skimmer, which is on the market today.
In 1990, Wilson and Cantrell obtained the first of many patents for innovation in the field of pollution control equipment. The company now holds two international patents and six domestic patents on its products.
Research Efforts Pay Off with $1 Million Prize
Elastec/American Marine's efforts in oil skimmer solutions research have paid off in a big way—the company was awarded the top prize in the $1.4 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge on Oct. 11.
The competition was launched in July 2010 following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico "to inspire entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists worldwide to develop innovative, rapidly deployable, and highly efficient methods of capturing crude oil from the ocean surface."
"This was the first time that the technique of burning oil on water in a large scale incident has been proven"
Norway-based NOFI, a developer and manufacturer of boom technology with a range of products covering most aspects of oil control, took second place. Elastec/American Marine was awarded $1 million, while NOFI was awarded a $300,000 cash prize.
Elastec/American Marine and NOFI were among the top 10 finalists selected from more than 350 entry submissions from around the world. The finalists in the competition got to test their proposed cleanup technology solutions at Ohmsett, a Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement testing facility in Leonardo, N.J., over a 10-week period this past summer.
The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge is the fourth competition awarded by the X Prize Foundation, a non-profit organization that holds competitions to promote research and development in four areas, including Energy and Environment, Education and Global Development, Life Sciences, and Ocean and Deep Space Exploration.
Wendy Schmidt is president of The Schmidt Family Foundation, which works to advance the development of clean energy and support the wiser use of natural resources.
Elastec/American Marine Exceeds Competition Benchmark, Industry Standard
To win first prize, a team had to demonstrate the ability to recover oil on the sea-water surface at the highest oil recovery rate (ORR) above 2,500 gallons per minute with an oil recovery efficiency (ORE) of greater than 70 percent.
Elastec/American Marine more than exceeded the requirements needed to win the competition's top prize, with an average ORR of 4,670 gallons/minute and average ORE of 89.5 percent oil to water recovered.
The company also exceeded the industry's previous best oil recovery rate tested in controlled conditions by three times using rapid spinning grooved disk skimmers.
Elastec/American Marine's Hydro-Fire Boom was used in a successful test by the U.S. Coast Guard to burn the oil floating on the Gulf of Mexico from the Macondo oil spill. Due to the test results, the Coast Guard then authorized controlled burning as a response tool.
"This was the first time that the technique of burning oil on water in a large scale incident has been proven, reducing the impact on the shoreline and sensitive ecosystem of the Gulf coast," according to the team's biography on the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge website.
In addition to supporting the controlled burning, the company supplied approximately 180 skimmers and 100 miles of containment boom to assist BP and other responders in their cleanup efforts.
The competition came at an "opportune time" for the company, which had been analyzing the efficiencies of the equipment and methods used to combat the Macondo oil spill. Elastec/American Marine said the competition spurred company members to pioneer a new skimmer testing standard.
"Well articulated guidelines, specific testing parameters, and a controlled testing environment are exactly what is needed to circumnavigate the unsubstantiated claims and boastings of entrepreneurs using the urgent mood of a disaster to push technologies that have little or no testing, nor any regard for possible future environmental consequences of their usage," the Elastec/American Marine team noted.
Tromso, Norway-based NOFI had an average ORR of 2,712 gallons per minute and an average ORE of 83.0 percent oil to water recovered, exceeding by more than two times the industry's previous best oil recovery rate tested in controlled conditions.
A U.S. customer told the company about the competition, thinking that it might be of interest to NOFI's Current Buster technology.
"We saw everything from new technology to what I would call evolution of existing technologies," said Lawrence
"The sky high demands for the oil recovery rate caught our interest, and although the competition seemed a tough challenge, we decided to evaluate our chances," the company said. "If the new system can deal with such amounts of oil in the test, it will certainly deal with most situations in real life spill situations."
NOFI tested its single vessel unit, the Current Buster 6, which collects, separates and stores oil in an alleged current of up to five knots. The system, which incorporates a flexible v-shaped surface boom towed between two vessels or alongside one via an overhead arm, corrals oil down to the end of the V where a separator removes it from the water.
The other eight finalists include Louisiana-based CRUCIAL, Netherlands-based Koseq; Finland-based Lamor; Norway-bsed OilShaver; Finland-based OilWhale; Washington-based PPR; California/Nevada based Vor-Tek; and Florida-based Voraxial.
Shell Excited By Innovation Seen in Competition
Shell Oil Company subsidiary Shell Exploration and Production Company has collaborated with the challenge over the past year, providing direct support for the technical, operational and scientific components of this competition.
The company also pledged to ensure that technological breakthroughs resulting from the challenge would make it into the marketplace.
Dave Lawrence, executive vice president exploration and commercial for Shell's Upstream Americas division, said the competition is a great match with Shell's own culture.
"Our goal as a company is zero harm to the environment and to people," said Dave Lawrence, executive vice president exploration and commercial, Upstream Americas. "What excited us about this competition was that it really encouraged innovation and technological development and further raised the bar on how to improve safety performance."
The fact that these projects beat the rate of recovery previously achieved marks a significant advancement, Lawrence said. While modifications may have to be made to account for terms of scale and conditions, Lawrence sees potential applications for the technologies of the top ten finalists in deepwater, shallow water, rivers and Arctic conditions.
"We saw everything from new technology to what I would call evolution of existing technologies," said Lawrence. Groups submitting proposals included existing companies as well as groups specifically formed to address the competition, both from inside and outside the oil and gas industry.
Due to the competition's rigorous criteria, the $100,000 third place prize was not awarded. The contest "was not a simple ranking," said Lawrence, noting that participants must have exceeded a certain threshold in order to place.
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