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THE CHALLENGE

In 2011, Elastec embarked on a project that had been sitting on the back burner for years. Thanks to the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, that project was given top priority, and every person in the company played a role to complete the task.

When the X Prize foundation issued to the world an audacious challenge of creating a device that could collect 2,500 gallons of oil in one minute, Elastec answered the call. To do this, co-founders Donnie Wilson and Jeff Cantrell had to blow the dust off of a project schematic that had been sitting in “that one room” that all offices have – the “we’ll get around to it” room. After adding grooves to their drum skimmers and more than doubling the recovery rate, Elastec knew the next step would be to add grooves to a disc. However, it would be a project that required a lot of research & development, and, at the time, the market wasn’t asking for it. So the project was put on hold.

But then, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill happened. Recognizing that existing technology couldn’t keep up with a disaster of such magnitude, the X Prize Foundation partnered with the Schmidt Family to create the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE. The winning team would receive $1Million. Upon learning about this, Elastec staff realized, “well…there’s our funding.”

The previous record for oil collection was 1,100 gallons per minute. The X Challenge more than doubled that to set a goal of 2,500 gallons per minute with 70% efficiency. While there were some on a quickly developed “Team Elastec” who thought that number was unreachable, the team upped the ante and set a personal goal of 5,000 gpm. “If we are going to try to break a record, let’s try to shatter it,” said Jeff Cantrell, retired Chief Operations Officer.

A prototype of a grooved disc was quickly developed and began testing. Only a single side of one disc was spun in oil and collected in a 35-gallon rubber trash bin. The one-minute test had to be cut short because the collection bin would have otherwise overflowed. Testing in optimal conditions, half of a grooved disc collected 35 gallons of oil in less than a minute. When the test was complete, all who were present were silent, trying to process what had happened. “That was the eureka moment when we knew we had something,” said Don Johnson, project manager for Team Elastec.

After crunching the numbers, it was determined that the skimmer would need 64 discs to hit the mark. Elastec production staff worked around the clock to build and test the frame, then wrap it all up with a pretty bow. From concept to completion, the entire project only took three months. It was then time to compete.

THE COMPETITION

When the WSOCXC was announced, over 350 teams entered their ideas. After two more rounds of selection, only ten were invited to compete. The tests were conducted at Ohmsett in New Jersey, and each team was allotted a week of tank time. During those ten weeks, all tests and results were confidential, and nobody knew how they, let alone other teams, performed. “We had a lot riding on this. The skimmer had never been given a full-scale test, so that was the first time we would see what it could actually do,” said Brian Orr, Team Elastec member and current Production Manager. But, similarly to the first initial disc test, the skimmer overflowed the collection tanks.

After all testing was complete and results were in, the Elastec Grooved Disc Skimmer collected 4,670 gpm with 89.5% efficiency. While not quite reaching their own 5k goal, Team Elastec, rocketed past the existing record, past the X Challenge goal, and left the competition in their smoke, claiming first prize.

While Elastec was receiving global recognition for this feat, the skimmer itself was not quite as popular. The hero of the show was the grooved disc, a technology that had just been proven and people were still curious and skeptical about it. “Our competition skimmer was a race car, built specifically for that contest,” said Brian Cook, Elastec Creative Services Manager. The real-world application of that skimmer wasn’t practical. After years of sitting in storage, it was eventually taken apart and scrapped for parts.

THE INNOVATION

Recognizing the impracticality of the competition skimmer, a scaled-down version was created. This skimmer would hold ten grooved discs and would collect about 150 cubic meters per hour (650 gpm), thus named the X150. This skimmer immediately garnered interest, and many systems have been sold around the world.

Elastec then began getting custom requests for grooved disc skimmers with twelve discs, eighteen discs, and a request for three discs. This request came from Rozema Boatworks who needed a high-capacity skimmer that would fit into the hull of their skimmer vessels. So a three-disc cassette was developed, and a great partnership was born. Shortly afterwards, a two-disc cassette was developed to retrofit Kvichak vessels in place of the Marco Filterbelt. Multiple versions of the two-disc skimmer were created and eventually named the X30. The X30 was developed further with a frame to be used with outrigger arms. The skimmer was mounted to the bow of a boat with a large collection swath to turn a basic workboat into a high recovery response vessel.

Once the X150 skimmer had made a name for itself, an entire launching system was developed around it. Containment boom, reel, power pack, skimmer, and a BoomVane were all contained in a single frame. The system would deploy and retrieve the skimmer from a large vessel and only required two people to operate.

The X150 was again modified into a cassette to be retrofitted into Navy Class V vessels for oil spill response in open water. These systems were recently tested at Ohmsett, ten years after the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE. Jeff Cantrell and Brian Orr were present for these tests and have both played a role in the advancement of the X Skimmer line. “It’s crazy to think I was here ten years ago watching that skimmer for the first time, and now we are back doing tests with the Navy,” said Orr.

The original drawings for the grooved disc sat in a dusty box waiting for the market to accept it. Thanks to the X Prize Foundation’s spurring of innovation, those drawings got out of “that room” and Elastec Grooved Disc Skimmers are keeping our world clean.

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