Eyes on the X Prize

November 1, 2011

The Macondo incident pushed oil spill response to the top of the environmental agenda. A recent contest let some innovative companies demonstrate spill response equipment – and for one of the event's technical advisors, Shell, to reassure the public that it intends to operate safely in Alaska, as Russell McCulley reports. 

In July 2010, as BP was bringing spillage from the Macondo well under control, the X Prize Foundation and philanthropist Wendy Schmidt launched the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, a contest with a $1.4 million purse to reward entrepreneurs and engineers for innovative ways to improve oil spill recovery and cleanup.

The winning Elastec team.

In early October, organizers announced the top contenders from a field of more than 350 entry submissions. Elastec/ American Marine, an Illinois company, picked up the $1 million first prize for its Grooved Disc Skimmer, which managed to pick up an average 4670 gallons per minute (111bbl/min) at an 89.5% average oil-to-water recovery efficiency. Runner-up was Norway's NOFI, whose Current Buster 6 corralling and separating technology logged an average oil recovery rate of 2712 gallons per minute (65bbl/min) with an average oil recovery efficiency of 83% oil to water. NOFI picked up a $300,000 prize.

The contest took place over several weeks this summer at Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility, in New Jersey. The ten finalists were challenged with a minimum oil recovery target of 2500 gallons per minute (60bbl/min) with at least 70% efficiency of oil collected over water. Both Elastec and NOFI built on existing proprietary technology for the competition: Elastec 's system used grooved 'drums' that created channels to scoop up oil, and NOFI scaled up its Buster method, which uses large pontoons to channel oil and water for separation and collection, to work at high speeds and in rough seas.

The Ohmsett tests ran the devices through a range of simulated sea states. Both companies worked on spill containment efforts in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Peter Velez

Macondo was 'one of the catalysts' for the contest, the first X Prize event to focus on spill recovery, said Peter Velez, Shell International's manager of upstream global emergency response and the only industry representative on the panel of judges.

'What we wanted to do with this competition is bring a step change' to spill recovery technology, Velez told OE: 'And to bring a new generation of oil spill equipment and some innovations.'

Arctic efforts

Velez noted the number of efforts under way to improve spill response practices and technology, including an initiative under the auspices of the American Petroleum Institute and a joint industry project organized by the Oil & Gas Producers Association to address potential spills in Arctic conditions.

'There's a lot of activity out there right now,' he said. 'It shows that we haven't stood still.'

David Lawrence

David Lawrence, executive VP for exploration & commercial at Shell Upstream Americas, was on hand at Ohmsett when the winners were announced. 'The X Prize really encourages innovation,' he told OE. 'They set a high bar as a target and then challenged people to come up with new ways to achieve it.'

The competition helped further efforts to conduct business in ways that pose no risks to people or the environment, Lawrence said.

'When you look for step-change improvements in that kind of activity, I think that's exciting, not only to Shell but also to our industry.'

Elastec's Grooved Disc Skimmer earned the company the $1 million top prize in the Wendy Schmidt oil Cleanup X Challenge.


Alaskan hopes

Shell has invested in a 'threefold response,' he said, for its proposed exploration program in Alaska, where the company hopes to drill up to three wells in the Chukchi Sea and two wells in the Beaufort Sea next year. The effort to expand offshore production in Alaska, where resource estimates run to 25 billion barrels of oil and 125tcf of gas, has been hindered by legal challenges from environmental groups.

Shell, Lawrence said, has put forth a plan that involved prevention through well design, a capping and containment system to respond to a subsea leak, and a comprehensive spill response logistics fleet able to reach a drill site in an hour or less. Among the enhancements to well design, he said, are dual shear rams on blowout preventers and remotely operated control panels set at a distance for better access in the event of an emergency.

The NOFI team.

'That gives me great confidence that we will be drilling safely there in 2012,' he said. While he declined to speculate about the Obama administration's commitment to Alaskan offshore E&P, Lawrence said he believes that regulators 'recognize the importance of the resource base.

'I think they recognize the importance of the revenues and the jobs that this will create,' he said. 'And I think they're working to be able to assure that the agencies respond in a way that is fair and equitable to our permitting applications.' In the Gulf of Mexico, where the company announced five discoveries in 2010, Shell has six deepwater rigs at work. The post-Macondo deepwater drilling moratorium sidelined activity in the gulf for several months.

'We had some important discoveries last year, and we're waiting anxiously to be able to get well results and to appraise those forward into development and into production,' Lawrence said. 'We're encouraged that we've been able to get our rigs back to work and our people back to work on those rigs.' OE

Second place winner NOFI demonstrated hte Current Buster 6, a boom system that can operate in rough seas.


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