I recently interviewed Scott Pegau, Director of the Oil Spill Recover Institute (OSRI) in Cordova Alaska. OSRI was created by the government in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and has been tasked with improving oil spill response in Arctic and subarctic marine waters. As you may know, OSRI has posted several Challenges on the InnoCentive website, including the Challenge, recently made famous by the New York Times, to separate oil from water in recovery barges. That Challenge was solved by John Davis, an oil-industry outsider. We find that many of the best solutions on our network come from outside the industry in which they are posted.
Scott, tell me – how long had you been working on this particular Challenge before coming to InnoCentive, and what other avenues did you pursue before coming to us for help with this problem?
Actually, the process of setting up a prize program predates my arrival at OSRI. The idea had been kicked around for a couple years, but hadn’t fully developed because of the need to ensure the program was properly run and advertised. Once InnoCentive was identified as a mechanism to post and manage challenges we started to actually draft the concepts that have become the challenges we have released.
Do you have plans to implement this solution soon?
Since it was a theoretical solution we are very interested in seeing if the theory will work as well in practice as we think it will. We are developing the groundwork to test it this winter once conditions get cold enough. We probably would have done the test a year ago, but we needed to arrange it in our budget cycle and design a test program.
What impact to you expect this solution to have on recovery efforts, and the environment in Alaska?
The challenge was for an application most likely to be needed in the Arctic. We haven’t had a need for the equipment to be used in the past, but the need to have the capability to empty tanks in very cold conditions has been identified for a while. With luck and care we will never need the solution to be used, but it nice to know we will be able to transfer oil out of holding tanks if a spill does occur.
It sounds like much of your work is preventative, which is great to hear. I hear you have recently posted two new Challenges on the same topic in our Clean Tech and Renewable Energy Pavilion. Can you tell me a bit about them, and what you hope the solutions will mean for your work in Alaska?
We actually posted three new Challenges recently. All three are theoretical and address issues that we face on a regular basis. The first is a means to keep recovery equipment from freezing up. When it is below zero and you run equipment in water it starts to have ice building up on it. We need a method to prevent the ice from forming within the capabilities of the ships deploying the equipment and without adding a lot of material to the oil that is recovered.
The second challenge is to develop a boom system that will work in broken ice. Booms are commonly used to either collect oil or protect areas. The problem is that ice ranges in size from very small to very large so it can either clog a system or crush it. We need a system that can collect oil without collecting ice.
Our third challenge is for a means to detect oil in inclement weather such as fog or rain. When visibility is poor it is hard for the recovery vessels to be able to detect where the oil is so that they go to the proper area to begin cleaning. We are looking for a way for the boat captains to see where the oil is when they can’t use their eyes.
What kinds of opportunities are there for Solvers to impact the environment in a positive way, by working on these Challenges?
These challenges are all designed to improve our ability to respond to an oil spill. With increased development in Arctic waters we need to ensure we can respond if there is an accident. The primary plan is to prevent spills from occuring, but if there is one we need to have the best tools to respond with in order to minimize environmental damage.