The Red Carpet Treatment for the Gulf Oil Spill

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 18, 2010 10:00 am

This is a guest post from Melissa Lott, a dual-degree graduate student in Mechanical Engineering and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work includes a unique pairing of engineering and public policy in the field of energy systems research. Melissa has worked for YarCom Inc. as an engineer and consultant in energy systems and systems design. She has previously worked for the Department of Energy and the White House Council on Environmental Quality for the Obama Administration. She is a graduate of the University of California at Davis, receiving a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biological Systems Engineering. Melissa is also the author of the blog Global Energy Matters: Energy and Environment in Our Lives.

It has been almost two months since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank to the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, a continuous stream of oil has contaminated our ocean and coastline, resulting in the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Efforts have been made to stop the flow of oil, but the solutions with the highest likelihood of success are still months from possible execution. This has left us with the troubling question of what we can do to minimize the negative environmental impacts of this oil. In particular, how do we clean up the massive quantities of oil already in the water? As it turns out, the answer to this might be found in Hollywood.

Kevin Costner, actor and apparent tech-aficionado, has a technology that is designed to quickly and effectively separate oil and water in order to minimize environmental damage from oil spills. Last Friday, the LA Times presented a lovely graphic (shown here) that illustrates and describes how this technology works in just six steps.

spinning solution Your browser may not support display of this image.

The final output of this machine consists of two streams. The first is 99% pure sea water, which can be directly piped back into the ocean. The second stream is 99% pure oil that can be stored onboard the vessels already at work in the Gulf. This could dramatically increase the effectiveness of these vessels in their fight against the constant stream of oil, allowing them to collect 99% pure oil instead of an oil-water mixture.

Costner’s technology isn’t new. In fact, he originally obtained the rights to develop and commercialize the prototype technology from the Department of Energy in 1992-93 via a technology transfer agreement. Since 1993, Costner has supported the development of this centrifugal separation technology by funding a business named Ocean Therapy Solutions (OTS) and its team of scientists.   Today, the company has a series of five machines that can process 2 to 200 gallons-per-minute of contaminated water. Put another way, the largest of these models (the model V20) could likely remove 3,000 gallons of oil per day from the Gulf’s water.

What’s more, BP has already successfully tested these machines under “extreme” conditions and has signed on the dotted line to purchase 32 of them (presumably) for use in the Gulf. At least 31 of these are available for deployment today. Now, Costner and OTS are waiting for the oil giant to pay for the equipment before they deliver.

After nearly two months of feeling helpless, I am excited to hear about a technological solution that might help in the situation we have now – where the oil has already escaped and contaminated the surrounding environment. While this technology cannot stop the flow of oil or undo the damage already done to the gulf coast, it might limit future harm as we wait for the solution that will finally stop this oil leak.

  • To watch a video on the technology, you can go here.
  • To see an interview with Costner on the technology, check out this video.
  • To learn (briefly) about Costner’s testimony last week on Capitol Hill, check out this link

Comments (9)

  1. rms

    Do the arithmetic. As they said in Jaws, they are going to need a bigger machine. If they can’t cut a check to pay for 32 of these machines how are they going to ramp up and buy thousands; and when does manufacturing of these machines start?

  2. mkm

    I think (hope) you mean 3,000 BARRELS per day, not gallons.

  3. Nullius in Verba

    “The first is 99% pure sea water, which can be directly piped back into the ocean.”

    That would make it illegal, it would seem.

    The Dutch already have this sort of technology, and even offered to fly their equipment to the Gulf three days after the disaster. They were turned down, we are told, because the EPA regulations will not give approval to methods in which the water returned to the sea contains any oil. It’s not environmentally friendly, I guess.
    (To be fair, I have heard they have been reconsidering the decision, since, although I have not heard that they have been given the go-ahead.)

    News story here. It was mentioned in a comment on this blog a couple of weeks ago.

    Incidentally, I’m curious. You say this is the worst in American history. How much worse a disaster is this than the Ixtoc I blowout? Do you have any numbers?

  4. @mkm – Thanks for your comment! This number depends on the concentration of the oil in the water. The 3,000 gallons per day (yes, I meant to say gallons – not barrels) was the value reported by ABC in a story on this technology (see link in blog) and is likely when the machine is used closer to the coast (where the ABC story was shot and the oil concentration in the water is relatively low). According to other reports (that I have not been able to verify with a source and so did not use here), this machine (the V20) could separate out up to 20 times this amount (closer to 2,ooo barrels per day per machine). This value was reported by – but has not been confirmed by OTS or Costner.

  5. @rms – Agreed. We either need a much bigger model of this machine or a LOT more than 32 of the V20. Further, no form of this technology would be the absolute solution to this problem (if there is one, since we cannot undo all of the damage that has already been done to our coast). Our first priority should be to get this leak stopped. Until then, we’re fighting a horribly uphill battle. But, this technology (even in its current form) could help us clean up the oil that’s already spilled into the ocean. This will take time, but to me this seems like a better option than the others on the table right now. Regarding your manufacturing question – To date, I haven’t been able to find out anything on this – other than comments that the company is ready scale up the process once they have the commitment to buy them.

  6. Nullius in Verba

    3000 gallons per day?

    Capacity of the rejected alternatives listed here.

  7. Paul

    I’ve been thinking about spray-on booms. You know, particularly in nautical applications, there are some very quick-setting expanding foams that you might be able to use to extrude a temporary boom. The idea would be to have a big tank of the one or two liquid ingredients that make up the foam on a slow-moving boat, and then squirt the stuff out the back. It’s sort of like silly string, I guess, except it would have to be a bit stronger and of course it would have to expand to about 6 feet in diameter and rest about half-way in the water 😉 Is that too crazy of an idea? Any materials scientist out there?

  8. Sean McCorkle

    Some of the naturally occurring microba in the ocean consume oil. This is not the greatest article:
    but it does touch on some salient points like oxygen depletion and unintended consequences of adding nutrients. Doing something like spreading fertilizer throughout the plumes seems more tractable than trying to build a phallanx of oil-separating machines, although as the article points out, it may be a very bad idea. It would be nice to hear some environmental microbiologists discuss this in detail.

  9. mkm

    Thanks for the explanation. ‘Gallons’ is still not impressive to me here, though. OTS is reporting the “ability” to extract 2,000 barrels a day for this technology. I found that info by following the link in your blog that highlights the V20 model and clicking in the recent news sidebar.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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