Brave Thinkers November 2010

Kevin Costner

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Antony Hare

Among the terrible things we learned when BP’s blown Macondo well began spewing those 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico was that the oil giant did not have a magical petroleum-cleanup machine. Little did we know that one farsighted wealthy man had spent more than $20 million building just such a contraption, scaling it up from laboratory size to be Gulf of Mexico–ready. And who could possibly have guessed that that man was Kevin Costner?

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the actor went looking for a technology that could have cleaned up Prince William Sound. None existed, so he committed to developing one. He purchased a patent for a centrifuge created by the chemist David Meikrantz at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. Costner knew that a centrifuge can help separate mixed substances by spinning them. A denser material will move outward, while a lighter one will migrate toward the machine’s center. Meikrantz’s working model was designed to separate radioactive isotopes, and it stood about six inches tall. But it suggested that something similar could remove oil (which is light) from water (which is comparatively dense). The trick would be building a machine large enough and fast enough to handle thousands of gallons.

And so, along with his scientist brother, Costner spent the 1990s plowing money into the concept, securing patents and relying on a team of researchers in Nevada to develop the device. When they were close, the Costners reached out to every major oil company, only to be rebuffed by industry players who told the actor we’d never have another spill like the Valdez.

Of course, we did. And Costner’s machines finally got a look. In the aftermath of this year’s spill, BP bought 32 of them to use in the gulf. Now the actor is working with Edison Chouest Offshore, in Louisiana, to build first-responder ships that could be deployed around the world to clean up future spills. “We could move into the 21st century of oil-spill cleanups with this technology,” Costner told me. “Whenever you’re challenged, there is an opportunity.” But this is about more than a personal investment that’s paying off. Costner’s magic machine is making good on a particularly American idea: when one bold technology gives us a problem, another can help us solve it.

Alexis Madrigal is senior editor and lead technology writer at TheAtlantic.com.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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