BP eyes Kevin Costner-backed oil clean-up tech

The energy giant has ordered 32 oil-water separators from Ocean Therapy, a company spun out of U.S. national labs and funded by actor/environmentalist Kevin Costner.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
2 min read

Go ahead, make your "Waterworld" jokes. BP has placed an order to purchase machines to separate spilled oil and Gulf of Mexico water from Ocean Therapy Solutions, a company backed by actor and environmentalist Kevin Costner, according to reports.

Ocean Therapy Solutions has been testing the centrifugal oil-water separator but has not yet received payment from BP, which is under growing pressure to stem the massive flow of oil from the remains of the Deepwater Horizon rig and clean up the spill.

"Kevin has spent 15 years and $24 million of his own money on this technology, and we have spent over $1 million more than that on adjusting the machines and preparing them for testing," Costner's business partner, Louisiana attorney John Houghtaling, told the Los Angeles Times. "We haven't gotten a check yet from BP. The sooner it comes, the sooner we can act."

The technology for the portable liquid separators was originally developed by national laboratories for defense purposes. Costner and his business partner purchased the patent for the technology in 1990 and have been working on commercial product since then. Costner began working on ways to clean oil from water, according to the LA Times, while working on his 1995 film "Waterworld," a post-apocalyptic tale in which most of the Earth has been covered by ocean and the remaining people live on boats and other floating structures.

The machine, designed specifically for oil and chemical clean-up, works by pumping liquid into a centrifuge, which mechanically separates the water from oil or other liquid with a different density than water. If used in the Gulf, water would be pumped out of the top of the device, with only 1 percent oil remaining in it.

During testimony to the House Committee on Science and Technology (click for PDF) last week, Costner said that the machine was designed as a first environmental response in a chemical or oil spill.

Costner said he was originally motivated to pursue commercialization of the technology by the Valdez Exxon oil spill in 1989 when he saw images of people using buckets and shovels to remove oil.

One of the important features of the machine is that it can process large volumes of water, with the largest able to handle 200 gallons of liquid per minute, or about 288,000 gallons per day. BP has ordered 32 of the machines.

"This machine's incredibly effective. It can actually spit out water at a 99.9 percent purity," Costner told ABC News. "The great thing about the machine is it can operate where there's no dispersants. There's no need to pollute ... we don't need chemicals to operate that machine in blue water. It was taken into the ground water. It was taken in close to the marsh, where it got very, very thick."

In a statement last week, Ocean Therapy said that it had successfully tested the separator in shallow water and had plans to try it in deeper water.