Alumnus invents revolutionary oil spill cleanup technology for $1 million X prize
Let no one doubt the power of competition to spark innovation.
Vying for the $1 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, Paul Smith (Executive MBA 2000) was part of a team that made the first significant advancement in oil-skimming technology in decades. Just 45 days from conception to prototype, Team Elastec/American Marine produced a grooved-disk skimmer that won grand prize and quadrupled the industry standard for oil removal.
“Past X Prizes—for commercial spaceships and a 100-mpg car—seemed to me like neat photo ops,” admits Smith, who recently joined Elastec to head new product development. “But now, having seen what all the competitors bring to the game, I’m fascinated by it as a mechanism for innovation.”
New oil standard
It worked for Team Elastec. Engineers from the Illinois-based firm created a skimmer with grooved disks that spin on an axle, picking up oil to be scraped into a holding tank and leaving water behind. The real innovation is the grooves, which collect much more oil than flat disks as they pass through the water.
But to compete in the X Challenge—and to work in the real world—the skimmer needed to perform in open water under any conditions. So Smith and colleagues from the Glosten Associates, a Seattle marine engineering firm, designed the “wrapper,” a vessel that ferries the abacus-like rows of skimming disks through moving water, fooling them into feeling stationary.
In the X Challenge test, team Elastec’s skimmer proved capable of removing 4,670 gallons of oil per minute from open water, with nearly 90 percent efficiency. The old industry standard recovery rate for skimmers—unchanged from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill to the massive BP Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010—was 1,200 gallons per minute.
Career of innovation
For Smith, it was another maritime innovation in a career full of them. After earning a BSE from Michigan and an MS in ocean engineering from MIT in the 1970s, he worked for years in marine operations and salvage. Salvors are never far from oil spills, so when he sought to come ashore after Exxon Valdez, he joined Seattle-based MARCO Pollution Control in 1992. There he managed an engineering and manufacturing operation with worldwide reach.
Feeling he needed a greater grasp of the business, he enrolled in the UW Foster School of Business Executive MBA Program, where he was valedictorian of his class. “I went initially to learn accounting,” Smith says. “But I really fell in love with all of the management sciences, especially finance.”
Expertise in business and marine engineering made Smith a hot prospect. He joined Glosten as a principal in 2002, and for a decade managed its marine consulting group, specializing in “anything nobody’s done before,” he says. “It was a great opportunity to applying my background in operations and engineering to solve strange, unique, fun problems.”
Among them, he’s been working with Lockheed-Martin to generate continuous, renewable energy by harnessing the temperature differential of water at the surface and depths of the ocean, a technology first envisioned in the 1800s.
A better mousetrap
Smith also developed sophisticated financial modeling tools for Glosten’s clients that have “killed a lot of marine transportation projects,” he says. “But it has shown others to be homeruns.”
One of the biggest was a next-generation oil skimmer, built on the hope of a prestigious prize. “For us to take on a job like this on speculation was out of character,” Smith says. “Were it not for my Foster background, I’m not sure if I could have sold the business case to my partners.”
Good thing. The prize could get a lot bigger if Elastec’s skimmer can be refined for the commercial market. “We still need to convince response organizations that this really is a better mousetrap,” Smith says, “and that they owe it to the world to put the best machinery available out in the next spill.”
Lasting alumni network
Now leading new product development for environmental innovation firm Elastec/American Marine, Smith’s world is potentially scattered to the seven seas. But wherever he goes, his far-flung classmates from Foster School’s Executive MBA Program continue to be an important part of his life and career. “They are like my personal consulting group,” he says. “Whenever I have a problem that needs some added expertise or perspective, I send out a blanket e-mail to my classmates and it’s never more than two hours before I have a solution.”