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NRDC Trustee Unveils $1.4 Million Prize to Find New Ways to Clean Oil Spills

Ed Chen

Posted July 29, 2010

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Wendy Schmidt believes human ingenuity will find new, far more effective ways to clean up the next BP-like oil spill disaster. And she’s betting $1.4 million on it.

Spurred by BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, the X Prize Foundation today announced the ``Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge,’’ designed to inspire entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers to come up with new, rapid deployable methods to capture crude oil from the ocean surface. 

``With nearly 4,000 active drilling platforms in the Gulf alone, it’s not a question of if there’s another spill, but when,’’ Schmidt said Thursday at a National Press Club announcement in Washington. Around the world, she added, there are tens of thousands more offshore oil-drilling operations, most of which have been subject to even fewer safeguards than BP’s rig, which collapsed and sank in April.

More massive spills are ``likely to be a common problem,’’ she said.

Schmidt is a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the Schmidt Marine Science Research Institute and president of the Schmidt Family Foundation.

The X Prize Foundation is widely recognized as an innovative force that fosters groundbreaking technologies through competition, serving as a paradigm for leveraging public interest, our entrepreneurial spirit and cross-disciplinary innovation to bring about solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing the world.

The X PRIZE Foundation’s best-known effort to date was the revolution in private spaceflight it inspired with a $10 million Ansari X PRIZE.

On October 4, 2004, the Mojave Aerospace Ventures team, led by famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, won the prize.  It was modeled after the $25,000 Orteig Prize, offered in 1919 by wealthy hotelier Raymond Orteig, to the first pilot who could fly non-stop between New York and Paris. The winner was a then-unknown airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh.

Among the foundation’s other prizes is a $10 million ``Progressive Insurance Automotive Prize,’’ a competition to develop a new generation of ``super-efficient vehicles that can break our addition to oil and stem the effects of climate change.’’

The year-long competition for the Schmidt prize begins Aug. 1. Peter Diamandis, the foundation’s chairman and CEO, expects up to 100 teams to compete. The top 10 finalists will face a head-to-head competition, to be judged by a panel of 10 top oceanographers and environmentalists.

NRDC is among the supporting organizations of the Schmidt prize.

The winner will receive a $1 million award, the runner-up $300,000, and the third-place finisher $100,000.

The foundation is now developing other prizes, including an energy & environment prize to catalyze a new era of clean, renewable and cost-effective energy with minimal impact on the climate and the environment.

Such breakthroughs could not come a moment too soon, given Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive climate legislation, the ongoing devastation of the Gulf of Mexico, and the still unfolding oil pipeline spill in Western Michigan. Even the oil from the Exxon Valdez spill has not been entirely cleaned up.

``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,’’ Schmidt said. ``That is why I’m personally funding this X Challenge.’’

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