X Prize Challenges Innovators To Take On Oil Spill Cleanup

BP is closer than ever to a fix that will stop leakage from its disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But capping the gushing oil marks the beginning of a much longer battle: How will we clean up the oil that now covers some 4,000 square miles of the ocean's surface, an area roughly equivalent in size to Los Angeles county?

A new $1.4 million X Prize Challenge, funded by Wendy Schmidt, hopes to spark innovations that will help clean up the mess.

The year-long competition is daring entrepreneurs, innovators, scientists, and engineers around the world to develop new, more effective methods of cleaning up oil on ocean surfaces. The technology must improve by at least 50% the current methods for surface oil cleanup and will be tested beginning April 20, 2011--the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Engineers and scientists with Shell have been advising the X Prize Foundation on how to structure the competition to ensure that it generates ideas that will be of real use to firms in the case of an oil spill or leak.

The technologies developed in the course of the challenge could be applied not only to efforts in the Gulf, but also to minimize the impact of future oil spills from tankers, offshore drilling rigs, waste disposal, and other sources of contamination.

"With tens of thousands of ocean oil platforms across the globe, and billions of barrels of oil being transported every day by tankers, it's not a question of 'if' there will be another oil spill, but 'when,'" said Wendy Schmidt, who is president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to advancing clean energy and the more sustainable use of natural resources.

Schmidt and Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, discussed the new challenge with the Huffington Post.

According to Diamandis, the competition aims to remedy a "market failure" and incentivize innovators, including those that may not be traditional players in the field, to submit ideas.

"There's been no incentive for people to reinvent how we clean up the oil spills because the rate of spills has been reduced. Yet the number of deep sea oil platforms and the amount of oil transported by tankers is increasing and while there may be fewer spills, the magnitude is increasing," Diamandis said.

"The day before something is a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea," he added. "We don't know where the leading idea will come from, but we have the utmost confidence that it will emerge from crowdsourcing."

Schmidt, who agreed to sponsor the challenge some 24 hours after learning about it, said her background working in Silicon Valley helped her understand the powerful impact of an incentive competition. She has witnessed the power of venture capital funding to turn computers from "something the size of buildings into something you can carry in your hand." And yet, she explained, "Something like oil spill cleanup doesn't have that resource. When it happens, it gets dealt with, then the money goes away."

Schmidt hopes the competition will not only spark creative cleanup solutions, but also help to ensure people are aware of the "aftershock" of the spill long after the live video feed of the oil spill has gone dark. "It's so easy for people to forget about it, which has a psychic consequence, both for people in the gulf and for people in the nation," she said.

She reflected on the oil spill and its effect on the country, noting, "I think Americans are devastated and frustrated. We don't understand that we can't fix something."

Read Schmidt's blog post about the Oil Cleanup X Challenge. Additional information on the competition is available from the X Prize Foundation.