Hollywood star Kevin Costner’s oil-spill clean up technology has all the approval it needs to scoop the goop from the Gulf of Mexico, but the actor is waiting now for the money from BP, according to the star and his business partner.
BP has issued a letter of intent to buy 32 high-tech machine for separating oil and water that could slurp up as much as 200 gallons of oil every minute from the massive spill in the Gulf, Costner said Thursday. His company, Ocean Therapy Solutions, was ramping up its operations to ship more than two dozen of the massive stainless steel machines to the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
”I know there must be questions why I am here. I want to assure everyone that it’s not because I heard a voice in the cornfield,” Costner joked, referring to his role in the film Field of Dreams, in which he played a farmer who heard voices telling him to build a ballpark in his corn field. Costner said he was deeply affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and that convinced him to use his money to develop technologies to help people and the environment.
“Kevin has spent 15 years and $24 million of his own money on this technology, and we have spent over $1 million more than that on adjusting the machines and preparing them for testing,” said Costner’s business partner, Louisiana attorney John Houghtaling. “We haven’t gotten a check yet from BP. The sooner it comes, the sooner we can act.”
Deployment of the 2½-ton machines had been delayed by rigorous testing requirements of BP and federal regulatory agencies, as well as engineering challenges posed by leaked oil that had degraded over time into gooey masses with the consistency of peanut butter, Costner said.
“Our machines were originally developed to operate as first responders” to oil slicks, Costner said. He said the problems were resolved by adjusting the machines to accommodate oil that has been weathered and hardened by evaporation and dispersants.
“The machines don’t have to be tested anymore,” Costner said in a brief telephone conversation. “We’re ramping up our operations. Where they will go is not up to me. That will be decided by BP and local parishes.”
Ocean Therapy officials acknowledged that full implementation of the systems may depend on how quickly BP pays for the 32 it committed to Wednesday. The company’s largest machine – the V20 — sells for about $500,000, an amount Costner suggested “is a potato chip to a giant oil company like BP.”
“It’s basically a centrifuge,” Lowry says, a machine that spins rapidly to separate fluids using centrifugal (well, technically centripetal) force. Think about a washing machine in spin cycle. If you open it up, you’ll see the wet clothes flung against the side of the washer. That’s the same force Costner’s machine employs. It spins the oily water, flinging the denser liquid, water, away from the lighter liquid, oil (which you know is lighter since you’ve seen the picture of it floating on top of the Gulf). It’s the same technology beer companies use to spin the solid yeast particles of out their brew.
Oil-water separation devices exist, Lowry says, but many of them use holding ponds to drain the liquids. The centrifuge is the new part of this solution, but from what he can tell, “it’s not exotic at all.”
One challenge for the centrifuge in the Gulf is that the chemicals BP used to disperse the oil under water might complicate the cleaning.”Think about it,” Lowry says. “You’re operating on phase [liquid] separation. You want one phase to move in one direction and the other phase in another. If small droplets are stuck in the water they might move with the water. So those tiny droplets could hurt the efficiency of this process.”
In his testimony in front of the House Energy and Environment subcommittee, Costner requested Congress to mandate the purchase of these oil vacuums for every oil company as “insurance” against the likelihood they might spill crude into the sea — kind of like a life vest for oil clean-ups. Now that BP has employed at least ten of his most powerful centrifuges, we’ll see if Costner’s investment pays off.
OTS describes the oil vacuum: “Two mixed liquid phases, such as water and oil, are drawn into the annulus between the contacter body and the rotar. Liquids gravitate downward in the annulus where rotational liquid motion is slowed by radial vanes in the bottom plate. After entering a hole at the base of the rotar, the liquid phases are then centrifugally separated into a duel vortex because of the density difference between the two fluids. In the case of water and oil, because of the density difference, heavier water exits the rotar from a hole at the top of the unit, while the lighter oil is recovered near the central shaft.” [Ocean Therapy Solutions via LA Times and NY Times]