Oil spills are a serious environmental concern. Recent spills like last year's BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the still-unfolding situation with the Rena cargo ship off New Zealand serve as terrible reminders of the havoc caused by oil pouring unchecked into the ocean. But there may be hope, in the form of a new skimming device created by a company called Elastec/American Marine.
The device is based on a simple principle: oil is attracted to plastic. Water is not. The device uses huge plastic discs to extract oil from water. As Don Johnson, the project manager for Team Elastec, explains it, "it picks the oil off, puts it in a trough and we pump it away, and that's all there is to it." Pretty simple. But in testing, the device has had a nearly ninety percent efficiency rate, and removed oil more than twice as fast as the industry standard.
That effectiveness won the company a coveted million-dollar award from the X Prize Foundation. The Foundation, a charitable group that offers incentives to companies and inventors to "bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity," recently held the Oil Cleanup X Challenge. The goal: create an oil skimmer that removes 2,500 gallons of oil per minute. The previous standard was 1,100 gallons.
Unfortunately, the device wouldn't have been much help during the Deepwater Horizon disaster - it's more useful for rapidly removing oil during an event like a tanker spill - but it may well help reduce damage to fragile ecosystems in future spills of that type. And that's getting Elastec tons of orders for the device: they're expanding their Illinois-based company to meet demand.