When oil was still spewing uncontrollably from the Deepwater Horizon well last summer, philanthropist Wendy Schmidt and the X Prize Foundation issued a $1.4 million challenge calling for better technologies to clean up oil spills. Aside from Schmidt’s concern for the environment, the need for innovation in this arena was dire.
In 1989, teams cleaning up the oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska recovered less than 15 percent of the total. Teams cleaning up oil from the Deep Water Horizon spill were not doing much better.
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Oil spills are a fact of modern life. A better cleanup technology would seem to be a no-brainer. But the hazardous spill and recovery sector is sluggish, due in large part to government contractors and federal and state agencies unwilling or unable to try new things.
More than 300 teams from across the world submitted proposals for the prize. Last summer, the 10 finalists in the Oil Cleanup X Challenge traveled to Leonardo, N.J., home of the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility. All of the teams brought technology that was more effective, cheaper and easier to use than existing oil spill cleanup systems.
The winner, Elastec/American Marine, utilized a spinning, grooved wheel to pull an astonishing 89.5 percent of spilled oil from the testing ground. The device collected oil at nearly 5,000 gallons per minute — fast enough to make a near-complete recovery of spills a real possibility. Now thanks to the publicity and the prize, this oil spill innovation will likely be commercialized and deployed.
The winning team’s tale and the Oil Cleanup X Challenge underscore how far behind major sectors of the global economy and global infrastructure remain. What’s more, many of these forgotten, slow-moving sectors are far more important to the long-term health and well-being of the United States and its citizens. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are nearly 20,000 oil spills — large and small — per year, a number that has grown considerably over the past two decades.
Eliminating these innovation black holes could do more to improve our lives and the economic future of our country than the latest Web-based social-networking applications. These long-standing problems are, for the most part, not sexy. But they exist in critically important sectors of the economy, such as chemical refining and automotive technology. Imagine a cleaner, more efficient alternative to the internal combustion engine.
Unlike battery-powered-car start-ups and solar- and wind-power companies, the internal combustion engine has been almost entirely ignored by venture capitalists. This has remained true even while gas floats above $3 per gallon. Over the past 50 years, innovation to improve fuel economy has only occurred when the government has called for it. In the same period that solar- and wind-power companies have pulled in billions in venture capital and government loans, automotive transportation start-ups focused on internal combustion engines have received little attention or financing.