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December 2011 Issue

For Glory and Gold: A $1 Million Prize Helps Improve Oil Spill Recovery
By Donnie Wilson
In a perfect world, the oil recovery equipment we manufacture at Elastec/American Marine would not be necessary. But the reality is that environmentally disastrous accidents happen, and skimmers, fire boom and dispersants are the most effective oil cleanup tools with minimal environmental impact. That is the dichotomy of our business.

When petrochemical spills occur, as they did following the Deepwater Horizon explosion last year and the New Zealand tanker incident this year, ecological and economic suffering is felt for years. Despite precautions taken by the oil industry, as more offshore oilfields are developed and newly discovered remote regions are drilled, the risk of spills increases.

Elastec/American Marine has been on the front lines of this battle to contain ecological disasters. While orchestrating controlled burns with our boom last year in the Gulf of Mexico, a void in the tools to mechanically recover oil became apparent. Although we had success with our drum skimmers during inland, nearshore and industrial spills, the market for large skimmers capable of recovering huge volumes of oil in open-water situations was almost nonexistent.

This deficiency began to be addressed last year, when Wendy Schmidt and the X PRIZE Foundation stepped up to the plate. The foundation works to encourage breakthroughs in education, global development, energy, the environment, life sciences, and ocean and deep-space exploration through incentivized competitions. Wendy Schmidt, working with the foundation, developed the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, which worked to inspire a new generation of highly efficient, rapidly deployable mechanical systems to capture crude oil from the ocean surface. The top prize was $1 million.

When the idea of entering the competition was proposed, we knew the requirement of recovering 2,500 gallons of oil per minute at a 70 percent oil-to-water efficiency would be difficult. Measurable, substantiated statistics are suspect in our industry, and we were encouraged that all competitors would be judged by the same criteria with unbiased testing at Ohmsett, the globally respected testing facility in Leonardo, New Jersey. Collection rates and efficiencies would no longer be unconfirmed claims and estimations, but proven statements.

The team focused on three objectives: oil collection, encounter rate and transfer systems. The groove technology we use on our drum skimmer systems had the proven recovery rates and efficiencies we were looking for; however, we needed to increase the surface area. By switching to grooved discs, as opposed to the original design of grooved drums, we could use rows of discs in banks rotating concentric to the axis (64 total discs in our prototype skimmer entry), increasing the volume of oil recovery with almost no additional water pickup.

The next challenge was to develop a vessel that could capture and hold the oil, would be capable of high transition speeds and have the stability to maneuver in a wide range of ocean conditions. Paul Smith and Justin Morgan, marine architects at Glosten Associates (Seattle, Washington), designed a craft that worked perfectly in both calm and wave conditions at Ohmsett. With the help of T&T Marine Salvage (Galveston, Texas), we selected pumps and power units vigorous enough to transfer the collected oil to Ohmsett's tanks. Amazingly, the development of our skimmer entry was accomplished in about 60 days.

The testing at Ohmsett outperformed our expectations. Our grooved disc technology recovered 4,670 gallons per minute with 89.5 percent efficiency, four times the industry standard of 1,100 gallons per minute. That was the moment of truth.

Winning the challenge proves that given the proper incentive, people around the world have the ingenuity and the creativity to conceive and develop ideas into products and services that may one day improve the quality of life by keeping our environment healthy. This mission is far more important than the financial reward, and we are honored to be among competitors who engaged in the same spirit of competition and sense of accomplishment by believing in and developing their mechanical concepts to keep our oceans clean.

At Elastec/American Marine, we embraced the X CHALLENGE as a stepping-stone for further development of our groove technology. We are developing and adapting a new line of skimmers for a multitude of spill scenarios, from open-water environments to quiet estuaries, for large flowing rivers and small streams. The new line of skimmers, which is going through research and development with input from customers, will be scaled using discs in a forward-advancing skimmer, and possibly in stationery skimmers, depending on the planned marine situations and functions. Our hope is that this competition has not only set a higher bar for the mechanical recovery of oil spills but that it will send a more profound message to work together to keep our seas clean.

This competition has inspired Elastec/American Marine to create, in a couple of months, what might have taken years to develop if we had not known there would be a return on investment. The remaining prize money, after the costs for developing the prototype, competition expenses and taxes, will be reinvested into the development of the product line.

For small companies, incentivized competitions like the X PRIZE can be a huge catalyst for research and innovation. Let's face it: Banks are not lending to small businesses for ideas, and government money takes too long, so private equity is an important source for bringing new ideas to market and creating jobs.
Donnie Wilson, CEO of Carmi, Illinois-based Elastec/American Marine, started his first company when he was 17 as a pipeline welder and fabricator. In 1990, he co-founded Elastec with Jeff Cantrell, coming up with an oil skimmer technology that exploited the viscosity of oil. In the original design, a rotating grooved drum would lift oil into a tank, leaving most of the seawater behind.


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