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$1.4 million for oil cleanup ideas

Kevin Costner, here's your chance. Sparked by the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, a well-connected environmental activist is offering $1.4 million for new methods to clean up oil spills.

The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge is being funded by, you guessed it, Wendy Schmidt. She's president of The Schmidt Family Foundation and helped get the foundation's 11th Hour Project and Climate Central going. She's also co-founder of the Schmidt Marine Science Research Institute - along with her husband, Eric Schmidt, Google's billionaire CEO.

Schmidt said she was prompted to act by the Deepwater Horizon leak and oil spill in the Gulf, which has created environmental havoc for more than three months.

"With tens of thousands of ocean oil platforms across the globe, and billions of barrels of oil being transported every day by tankers, it's not a question of 'if' there will be another oil spill, but 'when,'" Wendy Schmidt said in today's announcement of the challenge. "We need to come up with better solutions to capture oil on the surface, to minimize the harm these spills are causing to marine life, coastal wetlands, and beaches and to our livelihoods — a harm that can last for generations. This is why I am personally funding this X Challenge: to inspire innovators around the world — and all those who want to help address what has happened in the Gulf — to focus on solutions to an ongoing, systemic problem."

As Schmidt points out, the Gulf isn't the only place that faces oil-spill ills. Just in the last month, devastating spills have occurred in locales ranging from Michigan to China. And it's widely accepted that the technologies for cleaning up oil leaks have lagged behind the technologies for finding the oil in the first place.

So here's the deal, as laid out by the X Prize Foundation, which has added Schmidt's challenge to its portfolio of prizes:

Phase I. From August 2010 to April 2011, teams from around the world are invited to register for this competition, and to submit their approach to clean up oil slicks created by spills or leaks from ships or tankers (e.g. Exxon Valdez) land drainage, waste disposal, or oil platform spill (e.g. Deepwater Horizon). An expert panel of judges from industry and academia will evaluate all of the proposals along the following criteria:

• Technical approach and commercialization plan
• No negative environmental impact
• Scalability of and ability to deploy technology; cost and human labor of implementation
• Improvement of technology over today's baseline booms and skimmers.

Phase II. The judges will select up to 10 of the top teams to demonstrate their ability to efficiently and rapidly clean up oil on the ocean surface in a head-to-head competition. These proofs of capability, which will determine the winner, will take place at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility (OHSMETT) in New Jersey. The top team that demonstrates the ability to recover oil on the seawater surface at the highest oil recovery rate (ORR) and recovery efficiency (RE) will win the $1 million Grand Purse. Second place will win $300,000 and third place will win $100,000 in purses.

The money should be awarded around this time next year.

The X Challenge FAQ file says the challenge is focusing on surface cleanup "because we believe that in order to minimize the environmental impact of all oil spills ... we must capture the oil at the spill site. Once the oil hits the shore or is weathered on the sea surface, it is too late. We must have the technologies necessary to stop oil spills at the spill site."

Wendy Schmidt hopes that the X Challenge will capitalize on some of the lessons learned by Silicon Valley ventures such as Google and Apple.

"Silicon Valley has become a culture of venture capitalism that generates new ideas, and competition, and innovation and job creation," she told me today. "With oil, we haven't had that. So with this prize, we look at this as 'pre-venture capital,' if you will. There isn't just one winner in this, even though that's how it's ostensibly set up. There are many winners."

Even before today's official announcement, the contest's backers have received more than 1,000 e-mails asking for more information. They expect 75 to 100 teams to register for the competition.

"Any corporate entity can compete. Companies and non-profits can register to compete. Universities and communities can form corporate entities which can then register to compete. Government agencies are not eligible to compete," the backers say.

The X Prize Foundation has been in charge of four big-ticket competitions, including the Ansari X Prize for spaceflight ($10 million), the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize for super-cars ($10 million), the Archon Genetics X Prize for low-cost gene sequencing ($10 million) and the Google Lunar X Prize for moonshots ($30 million). It also ran the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge (with NASA providing the $2 million purse).

The foundation said it was making a distinction between its X Prizes (which usually take years to win) and this new X Challenge (which has a smaller purse and a one-year time frame). Despite those differences, the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge and the Progressive Automotive X Prize have the same goal: to use cash incentives as an extra lure for environmentally minded innovation.

"The X Prize Foundation is focused on the environment in two ways," Peter Diamandis, the X Prize Foundation's chairman and CEO, told me this week. "First, with Progressive, it's about reducing the consumption of oil. And second, we are pleased with Wendy Schmidt, who is personally funding this, for dealing with the issue of oil spills - not only from platforms, but potentially from tankers. While we have an oil economy, it's naive to think this is the last oil spill we'll have. Finding out ways to much more efficiently clean it up when it does happen is an important objective of that competition."

Just last week, a consortium of major oil companies announced that they would set aside $1 billion to focus on new technologies for containing deep-sea oil leaks. But the X Challenge's backers said this program "will not negate the need for oil cleanup technology" that focuses on surface spills. They said they hoped non-traditional tinkerers as well as deep-pocketed corporations would go after the X Challenge cash.

After all, if a couple of bicycle mechanics from Ohio could figure out how to build a heavier-than-air flying machine, a couple of grease monkeys from heaven-knows-where just might come up with a better way to clean up the oil. And thousands upon thousands of potential solutions to the Gulf oil crisis have been streaming in from the general public over the past three months.

So here's my question: Would "Field of Dreams" film star Kevin Costner, who has bankrolled an oil-sucking invention now being used in the Gulf cleanup effort, be eligible to enter?

"From what I understand of his centrifuge solution, they could be part of a team competing for the prize," Francis Beland, prize director for the X Challenge, said in a forwarded e-mail.

There it is, Kevin: If you bring it, you could win.

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