Kevin Costner has a machine that he says could help clean up the massive oil slick from the ongoing spill in the gulf. Developed with the help of his scientist brother, Dan Costner, the device uses centrifugal force to separate oil from water. It draws in an oil-water mixture at up to 200 gallons per minute, and spits out separate streams of oil and water from the other end. Kevin Costner has reportedly spent millions on the device over the years and believes that he has finally found a use for it. BP officials say the company plans to test some of Costner's machines in the coming days.
There's no question that it's a creative idea, but could it really work any better than approaches that BP is already using? We haven't tested the model or spoken with experts, but based on the video, we think a few questions need to be answered before Costner is appointed head of international oil-spill cleanup.
Is it ocean appropriate? It seems that something like this would be great if you had a ton of oil suspended in a relatively small volume of water. But the oil from the gulf spill is widely distributed over the water's surface, and the oily water would need to be channeled into the device at fairly high concentrations for it to have any real impact, even though it can clean up to 200 gallons per minute. Clearly you can't just drop the machine's intake tube into the gulf and wait for it to clear oil from the entire body of water.
Would it be more useful than existing cleanup approaches? It seems that the best way to get concentrated oily water into the machine would be to skim it from the surface—but that's exactly what BP is already doing with boats that corral and collect the floating oil for later processing (the skimmed liquid is usually about 10 percent oil and 90 percent water). So, in this scenario, the machine wouldn't be making the skimming process any more efficient, but it would allow the collected oily water to be separated onboard—the water could be ejected back into the gulf, and the oil could be stored on the vessel. Whether that would be worthwhile or make the process more efficient is an open question.