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.