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Oil Cleanup X Challenge: Winning Team Awarded $1 Million

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In the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, 10 teams accepted a challenge to develop systems to clean crude oil on the ocean's surface at a rate of more than 2,500 gallons per minute.

The winning team of the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, Elastec/American Marine, raised this number to an unprecedented 4,670 gallons per minute.

The team was an Illinois-based company that had hands-on experience with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Team leader Don Johnson told HuffPost that no one had ever seen these types of numbers before, so while the team knew they were doing well during the judging, they had no idea how well.

Johnson said the best experience "really was watching the skimmer go down into the test tank for the first time, especially in the wave conditions, because that was the one we were a little worried about. We knew it would handle the calm, but the wave conditions we didn't know, and it performed beautifully -- that was the flying moment."

At an awards ceremony on Tuesday, Johnson's team received $1 million dollars out of a $1.4 million purse, and the runners-up were awarded $300,000, funded by president of The Schmidt Family Foundation, Wendy Schmidt. The remaining money will go toward future X Challenge projects.

The teams were given just over a year to develop their cleanup systems and present them to a panel of judges over the summer in New Jersey. They had to meet a minimum requirement of 2,500 gallons per minute with an efficiency rate of at least 70 percent. Of the 10 teams, only two qualified and no third place was awarded.

The competition required each team to test their systems by sopping up oil in both calm water as well as machine-generated rough conditions in the Ohmsett testing facility in New Jersey.

Johnson said his team is looking forward to refining the skimming technologies they developed.

"Each oil spill is different. There is the type of oil, the environment, so you have to be able to tweak the system to the particular spill," he said. "There is no silver bullet for all of them. You have to keep working on a system for all those spills."

Dag Nilsen, leader of Team NOFI from Norway, came second in the competition with a boom system that collects oil and then separates it from water. He said the main challenge with oil cleanup technology is the underwater current.

"The current causes normal oil booms to fail and that was the main problem in the Gulf oil spill," he said. "Our booms can operate in currents up to five knots and in addition we have proved we can pump one barrel of oil every second and that is a great achievement for us, we are really happy about it."

David Lawerence, executive vice president of Exploration and Commercial Shell Upstream Americas, said at the awards ceremony that oil spill response "was not a competition."

"In the end it is a non-competitive aspect of our business and we cooperate with other companies and organizations on a global basis to ensure proper planning, preparedness and technologies are in place for our operations, but when you have a competition you see what it creates and it is remarkable," he said.

Schmidt said at the ceremony that "when we prevent more oil from washing up on the shore, we really only create a better Band-Aid. We haven't stopped the bleeding, we haven't addressed the disease that causes the bleeding and we haven't addressed the system that produces the problem in the first place."

"When oil is extracted there is an extremely high risk to the safety of living systems," Schmidt added. "It is all to satisfy our relentless demand for the product. Only addicts would venture into riskier, more dangerous, volatile environments to extract what they think they cannot live without."

She continued, "According to the president's bipartisan national commission reporting on the Deepwater Horizon disaster earlier this year, oil drilling has less regulation than any other major technical industry, including aviation, chemical processing and nuclear power. So it really is astonishing that after 15 months of what was called the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, our Congress hasn't passed one bit of legislation to make the system safer."



Photos and captions courtesy of X Challenge:

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