Can Kevin Costner’s Centrifuges Help Clean up the Gulf?

What can actor Kevin Costner do for the oil-soaked Gulf Coast? Last week, the movie star told Congress that Ocean Therapy Solutions, a company he got started with the purchase of a Department of Energy-developed centrifuge technology in 1993, has a device that can separate oil from water in a safe, clean and effective manner. Costner, who probably had to contend with a few fuel spills during the filming of his massively overbudget sci-fi epic Waterworld, told the House Committee on Science and Technology that the invention he’s backed to the tune of $24 million can clean up to “99.9 percent purity” water that is thick and sludgy with spilled oil.

The largest device, the V20 centrifuge, can clean up about 200 gallons of liquid per minute, or about 288,000 gallons per day, and BP is reported to have ordered 32 of them so far. Once they’re built and in the water, that could have a capacity to clean 9.2 million gallons per day.

But can a few dozen centrifuge filters, no matter how big, make a dent in the worst oil spill in American history? It’s hard to say, but the sheer scale of the disaster would suggest that BP, the Coast Guard and everyone else involved could use all the help they can get. According to latest estimates, the ruptured deep sea well is spewing between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels of oil per day, or up to 2 million gallons per day. That oil, in turn, is both rising to the surface in massive slicks that now threaten the Gulf Coast and spreading out in hard-to-track underwater plumes.

And that’s just the oil coming out of the ruptured well. How much oil-laden seawater does that add up to? It’s difficult to say, but according to a Monday post at the White House blog covering the spill, the recovery operation has captured about 19.9 million gallons of an oil-water mix so far. That’s no doubt a fraction of the total amount, and it’s taken the efforts of more than 5,400 seagoing vessels and some 5.4 million feet of containment and absorbent booms — as well as the use of about 1.26 million gallons of dispersant chemicals — to break up the oil before it reaches shore. The dispersant also has a potential environmental cost that could match the impact of the oil itself, experts warn.

The Washington Post reported Monday that BP’s latest plan calls for capturing 1.2 million gallons of oil a day by the end of the week, up from a current capacity of 756,000 gallons a day, and has plans to capture 2.1 million gallons per day by the end of the month. BP has also said it will continue using dispersants, despite concerns as to their potential harm to the gulf’s wildlife and ecosystem. Costner, who made a point in his testimony before the House committee that one of his main goals was to reduce the use of dispersants, said that if the V20 had been around for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, about 20 of the devices could have cleaned up about 90 percent of the spill within a week.

But so far, Costner hasn’t had gotten regulators to approve the device, despite some 45 attempts to do so, he told the House committee. “In order to receive approval, technologies must be tested on actual spills, but the agencies charged with approval will not deploy untested equipment in a spill scenario,” he said in his prepared testimony. “We were dealing with a classic and very unfortunate example of a Catch 22.” Perhaps the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could give the technology a chance to prove its claims.

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Images courtesy of marinephotobank’s photo stream, Mike Licht, ‘s photostream, and Ocean Therapy Technologies.