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Next X challenge: Cleaning up oil

Update for 1:15 p.m. ET July 29: The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge is offering $1.4 million for oil cleanup ideas, and the money will be given away by this time next year. Get the updated story right here.

Tuesday's original item: Even as the $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competition is nearing its climax, another multimillion-dollar competition is taking shape, courtesy of the X Prize Foundation. This one targets a challenge even more topical than fuel efficiency: cleaning up oil spills.

The latest venture, the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, is to be fully unveiled at Washington's National Press Club on Thursday, according to a news advisory issued today. The prize's "name sponsor" is Wendy Schmidt, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, founder of the 11th Hour Project and Climate Central, co-founder of the Schmidt Marine Science Research Institute ... and the wife of Google's billionaire CEO, Eric Schmidt. That's a signal that the foundation is backing the prize purse, the amount of which is yet to be announced.

The X Prize Foundation says the challenge is "designed to inspire entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists worldwide to develop innovative, rapidly deployable and highly efficient methods of capturing crude oil from the ocean surface."

If the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico runs its expected course, the challenge may come too late to turn up fresh technologies for that cleanup. Nevertheless, the three-month-long Gulf crisis points up the need for more rapid - and more environmentally friendly - responses to oil spills.

In addition to Schmidt and the X Prize Foundation's chairman, Peter Diamandis, attendees at Thursday's news conference are to include Philippe Cousteau Jr., co-founder and CEO of Earth Echo and Azure Worldwide ... and the grandson of the famed late ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Dave Gallo of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and government officials will be on hand as well.

The X Prize folks have been in charge of several major challenges, including:

  • The $10 million Ansari X Prize for private-sector spaceflight, awarded to the SpaceShipOne team in 2004.
  • The $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize for super-efficient vehicles, which is likely to produce winners this summer (more on that later today).
  • The $10 million Archon Genetics X Prize, aimed at promoting low-cost, mass-market genetic sequencing.
  • The $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, which would reward the first rocketeers to launch a private-sector rover on the moon.
  • The $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, which handed out the last of the prize money (provided by NASA) last year.

There's a wide spectrum of models for the prize money and the time frame for competition. We'll have to see where the Oil Cleanup X Challenge fits in that spectrum, but I have a feeling the money will be awarded well before an X Prize rover lands on the moon. Stay tuned for the details on Thursday.

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