A 4,600 Gallon per Minute Oil Skimmer Just Won the $1.4 Million X Challenge

Current industry-standard oil recovery equipment pulls roughly 1,000 gallons a minute but, as the Deep Water Horizon incident showed, that simply isn't good enough. So Wendy Schmidt—as in wife of ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt—put up a $1.4 million purse for any team that could extract 2,500 gallons a minute. Here's the winning design.


The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge also stipulated that, in addition to extracting 2,500 gallons of oil from water, the device had to do so at a rate of at least 70 percent oil-to-water collected. In January this year, over 350 ten-person teams took up the challenge, though in the end, Elastec walked away with the prize.

The Elastec Oleophilic Skimmer uses a grooved plastic disc that rotates through the water. Oil which is attracted to plastic, collects in the grooves as the wheel turns via the meniscus effect, and is then scraped off and funneled into a holding container. The grooves act to drastically increase the surface area of the plastic disc, allowing it to collect oil much more quickly than a smooth one. A single-wheel prototype demonstrated May 4, 2011 filled a 32-gallon garbage can in just 35 seconds.

The full-size version used in the competition, which employed numerous wheels joined in parallel, pulled an average of 4670 gallons of oil out every minute. Even with simulated wave action, the skimmers were able to remove approximately 90 percent of the oil that passed through it.

Elastec, a 140-person oil recovery firm based in Carmi, Illinois, was established in 1990. Reportedly, the Elastec team got the idea for an Oleophilic Skimmer when, at a local oil spill, a wayward plastic bucket was accidentally blown into the spill. Donnie Wilson, Elastec CEO and team leader of the X Challenge team, noticed that as the bucket turned, oil adhered to its sides.

[X Challenge - Elastec - Elastec Grooved Drum Research Paper.pdf - NPR]

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This is a wonderful innovative way to increase the effieciency of clearing up oil spills, but why is it that the prize is focussed on cleanup technologies and not spill prevention methods?

Is it just fine that this disgusting life depleting substance is constantly being spilled into the oceans but the only problem seems to be how best we can clean it all up? And not how best we can prevent it in the first place