Brave Thinkers November 2010

Kevin Costner

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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