The X Prize Foundation launched an X Challenge to generate new, more efficient approaches to oil spill clean-up. Like other X prizes, which have spurred major investments in space travel, robotic lunar modules, and cars that can make 100 miles per gallon, this new challenge is meant to create next generation technologies and industries. Wendy Schmidt, President of the Schmidt Family Foundation, has put up $1.4 million for the prize — $1 million to the first place winner, $300,000 for second place, and $100,000 for third place. “This is a flash prize — we hope to do it fast,” said Peter Diamandis, Chairman of the X Prize Foundation, adding that winners will be announced within a year. All types of scientists, design professionals, and “out of the box” thinkers are encouraged to create a team and submit concepts.
Wendy Schmidt said she was driven to invest in this competition because watching the Gulf oil spill, she found we “clearly need a new operating system, a version 2.0.” She added that we are “using last century’s energy infrastructure” and may continue to do so for some time. Given oil won’t be going away in the near-term, the U.S. needs to come up with better oil clean-up technology for the perhaps inevitable catastrophic spill down the road. “With tens of thousands of ocean oil platforms across the globe, and billions of oil being transported every day by tankers, it’s not a question of ‘if’ there will be another oil spill, but ‘when.’”
While ecosystems are an “abstract concept,” she said in reality, “the oil spill is destroying families under water. There’s a complex web of life down in the sea that we know little about.” David Gallo, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, added that 70 percent of the world is ocean, but we’ve explored only 5 percent of this. Phillipe Cousteau, grandson of Jacques Cousteau and co-founder of EarthEcho International, argued the U.S. currently doesn’t have the technology to clean-up the Gulf oil spill. Looking ahead to potential future spills, he also said a major accident in the Arctic region would be an even worse disaster because there would be no way to get equipment up into the region during icy months.
Pollution, ocean acidification, plastics, shipwrecks were all cited as major on-going problems. The ocean is the recipient of increased dumping. Pollution from man-made sources then also needs to be addressed in any comprehensive solution. “We need to change our behavior towards the ocean. We’ve been acting like we are at war with it,” said Gallo.
When asked, Gallo said potential design solutions that harness natural technologies like “evaporation or massive-scale microbial action” can be submitted, but aren’t the focus of the competition. He also mentioned the need to integrate land-based communities and ocean-based clean-up operations into an integrated approach. Clean-up operations and facilities need to work well with coastal communities and provide a source of jobs. “This is the hard part – bringing in the community.”
Next year, the final ten Oil Clean-up X Challenge finalists will be asked to demonstrate their technologies on the water. Judges will see how they perform in reality at the National Oil Spill Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey. There, teams will need to demonstrate the ability to recover oil on sea-water surface at the highest oil recovery rate and efficiency. Shell oil company and other energy firms may also participate to see which technologies can be quickly be scaled-up and rolled-out.
The Oil Clean-up X Challenge is supported by a range of top environmental organizations, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Alliance for Climate Protection, and Global Green. Additional corporate or foundation donations are encouraged to help expand the funds available for winners.