BP's effort to clean up millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico is turning to technology developed two decades ago by a researcher at the Idaho National Laboratory.
The energy company has contracted to buy 32 centrifugal devices that can help separate oil from water at a rate of up to 200 gallons per minute.
The technology was developed by INL scientist David Meikrantz, who initially sought to use the machines to separate the components of nuclear substances.
In 1993, INL licensed the technology to Ocean Therapy Solutions, a company owned by actor Kevin Costner, who has invested more than $24 million to develop the centrifuge devices.
"The beauty of this technology is it's quick, it's easy, it's simple," said Meikrantz, who spent nine years helping Costner's company further develop the technology for use on massive oil spills.
Costner testified before a U.S. Senate committee Thursday that all major oil companies should keep the machines nearby, just like fire extinguishers. The machines weigh about two tons and can fit on fishing boats or docks.
When in use, the oil-water mixture enters the separator through a skimming hose and passes into the centrifuge. After about a 30-second spin, the water is released on one side, the oil on the other. The oil content in the purified water is about 50 parts per million, Meikrantz said.
That isn't as clean as the preferred federal standard of 35 parts per million, but Meikrantz said it's a step toward cleaning the mess in the Gulf.
According to the Ocean Therapy Solutions website, the V20—the largest of the machines that come in various sizes—can clean up to 210,000 gallons of water per day and could potentially remove 2,000 barrels of oil in a 24-hour period.
The environmental disaster in unfolding in the Gulf may be motivation for improving the technology, Meikrantz said.