If there was one thing that last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill showed us, it was that there were no particularly good systems in place for containing and removing such spills while the oil is still out at sea. One year later, although many companies and individuals have come forward with their concepts for such systems, little has actually been developed to the point of being ready for deployment. In order to generate some incentive, and provide financial support to the cream of the crop, the X PRIZE Foundation is now in the midst of its US$1.4 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE. Although the competition has been under way since January, the ten finalist teams were announced just last week.

Since 2004, the X PRIZE Foundation has held a series of contests designed to encourage research and development of emerging technologies. These have included the Ansari X PRIZE, for reusable private spacecraft; the Archon Genomics X PRIZE, for human genome sequencing; the Google Lunar X PRIZE, for robotic lunar rovers; the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE, for vertical take-off and landing rocket vehicles; and last year's Progressive Automotive X PRIZE, for practical yet highly fuel-efficient automobiles. Last July, the Foundation announced that it was planning a competition for oil spill cleanup innovations.

Named for its benefactor, American philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, this year's event is "designed to inspire a new generation of innovative solutions that will speed the pace of cleaning up seawater surface oil resulting from spillage from ocean platforms, tankers, and other sources." The contest is focused specifically on technologies for cleaning up oil at the spill site - this is because a greater amount of environmental damage has taken place by the time oil reaches the shoreline, or has drifted for days at sea.

From a pool of over 350 pre-registered teams, the organizers have pared the competition down to ten finalists, announced on May 24th. Those teams will now proceed to work on their various oil spill clean-up systems, with the final competition set to take place in October at New Jersey's OHMSETT, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility. There, a panel of eight judges will select the three systems that have the highest Oil Recovery Rate (ORR) of over 2,500 U.S. gallons-per-minute (9,463.5 liters-per-minute) with an Oil Recovery Efficiency (ORE) of more than 70 percent.

The first place winner will take home $1 million, with $300,000 going to second place, and $100,000 to third.

Here's a quick look at some of the teams that will be competing.

This Louisiana firm manufactures an absorbent coating material, that can be applied to the company's drum or disc surface skimmers in minutes. Once in place, it reportedly boosts those devices' oil recovery rate by up to 500 percent. Its ORE ranges from 87 percent at 400 gallons-per-minute to 82 percent at 880 GPM - it will be interesting to see how that scales up to a minimum of 2,500 GPM.

Koseq (The Netherlands)

Koseq makes a device known as the Victory Oil Sweeper. The V-shaped apparatus consists of two forward-angled rigid floating arms, that channel surface oil into a skimmer mounted between them. The Sweeper can be pushed in front of a smaller vessel, or pulled alongside a larger one. The angle of the arms can be adjusted, so they can cover as much surface area as possible by opening wide, or fit into narrow waterways by closing up.

NOFI (Norway)

Not wildly unlike the Victory Oil Sweeper in basic principle, NOFI's Current Buster Technology incorporates a flexible V-shaped surface boom, that is towed between two vessels or alongside one (via an overhead arm). Oil is corralled down to the end of the V, where a separator removes it from the water. The company claims that its system can collect and separate oil at speeds of up to 5 knots.

OilShaver (Norway)

The OilShaver device consists of a pair of floating pontoons, situated parallel to one another, with a neoprene/polyester "floor" running lengthwise between them. The whole assembly juts out at a 45-degree angle from the side of a moving vessel, facing into the oncoming oily water (a line running from the front of the Shaver to the bow of the vessel holds it in place). The floor is not attached to the front pontoon, but instead extends up and in front it, where a series of ropes hold it taught with the vessel. Along the floor's leading edge are a series of horizontal slits. These are located in such a way that floating oil - along with a little bit of seawater - is "shaved" off the surface, and then trapped between the pontoons and the floor. A weighted slit along the bottom of the floor allows the water to escape, while the trapped oil is forced to flow back along the floor to a sump at the end, which pumps the oil onto the vessel for storage.

OilWhale (Finland)

This system could either be contained within a barge-like module pulled alongside (or pushed in front of) an existing vessel, or incorporated directly into a purpose-built ship. The process starts with the module/ship moving through the water, taking in surface oil and water via a ramp-like front gate that can be raised or lowered to the optimum height. Within the OilWhale's containment reservoir, the oil will still be floating on top, with the water beneath it. That water is then released back into the ocean by opening gates in the bottom of the hull, leaving the oil in the reservoir. One of the claimed advantages of the system is that the oil isn't mechanically contacted as it's collected, minimizing the chances of it getting dispersed within the water.

This California company's entry in the competition is something known as the EEL, or Emergency Extraction Line. It consists of a series of floating joined horizontal modules, that extend out from a support vessel or oil platform in a weir boom setup. A pipeline running through the modules is joined to a high-power pump on the vessel, drawing both surface and subsurface oil (and water) through intakes on the side of each module. Once pumped aboard the vessel, the oil and water are fed through a separator.

The Voraxial Separator, which we have covered before, is designed to be mounted on an existing vessel of almost any size, equipped with conventional oil-skimming equipment. The skimmed oil/water mixture is fed into the Separator, which spins it at high speed in a cylindrical chamber. The centrifugal force causes the water to move to the outside of the chamber, while the oil forms a column down the middle. A manifold at the end of the chamber lets the two streams exit separately, so the water can return to the ocean while the oil stays on board. One Voraxial 8000 (the largest model) is said to be capable of processing 7,000,000 U.S. gallons (26,497,884 liters) of water per day.

This Illinois-based team has created a unique grooved disc skimmer. The company has previously designed oil-catching surfaces for skimmers, that reportedly boosted oil recovery rates by up to 200 percent over conventional technology.

Lamor (Finland)

Playing its cards pretty close to its chest, Lamor simply told us that "We will present a new high-capacity offshore OSR [oil spill recovery] concept with a huge scalability potential base on our patented oleophilic brush technology with new features for all types of oils and scenarios."

The other finalist team in the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE is Pacific Petroleum Recovery, from the U.S. We are still waiting for them to get back to us regarding their entry in the competition, and will update this article when they do so.

View gallery - 28 images