Former UCSB graduate student Victoria Broje’s research contributed to the design of a revolutionary drum oil skimmer, which recently received the 2011 Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE’s $1 million top prize.

Illinois-based corporation Elastec/American Marine took first place for their high-efficiency drum, which is based on a modernized model Broje presented in her 2006 Ph.D. dissertation. The drum is a cylindrical device with a special coating that picks up contaminants in the water, and its design was developed at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management in a research team led by professor Arturo Kelle. Elastec/American Marine bought the license for Broje’s patented design before further updating the device and submitting it to the X CHALLENGE.

The X CHALLENGE is a competition run by the X PRIZE foundation, which sets goals for innovative technology. Wendy Schmidt, wife of Google Chief Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, spearheaded this year’s X CHALLENGE in an effort to inspire cutting-edge methods of surface oil removal.

Keller said the new device improved upon the efficiency of previous models and is the premier prototype for the widely used collection method.

“It can collect up to 200 percent more oil than the previous design, and as shown in this competition, it is the best technology out there to collect oil from spills on water,” Keller said. “It already is in commercial use. It was used to collect oil in the Gulf of Mexico spill last year.”

Broje’s work in Keller’s lab resulted in a new, more effective coating material and an updated structural design, which incorporated V-shaped grooves to trap more oil. According to Keller, the biggest obstacle was finding a surface pattern that could accommodate a large volume of oil while remaining easy to clean for repeated use.

“We started looking at different materials,” Keller said. “We then realized that, in addition to the material, the roughness of the surface made a difference. Rougher surfaces collected more oil, but we needed to be able to scrape it off the surface efficiently. So then we decided that the V-groove would give us a high capacity and could be easily cleaned every rotation, almost 100 percent.”

The university licensed the new design to Elastec/American Marine, where the design was improved upon again by incorporating multiple discs instead of one drum, dramatically increasing surface area and oil collection rate.

Although the minimum recovery rate for the contest entry was set at 2,500 gallons per minute — 1,400 higher than the industry standard — Elastec’s device brought in over 4,600 gallons per minute, while the second-place entry from the Norwegian company NOFI barely exceeded the X CHALLENGE goal.

UCSB Vice Chancellor of Research Michael Witherell said Broje’s model provided a much-needed catalyst for oil spill recovery tools.

“Victoria Broje brought a very innovative approach to the problem, and, in a short time, developed a much more efficient design,” Witherell said. “Making the connection with a great company like Elastec was key to the final success, however. With another company, this idea might have died on the vine.”

According to Keller, Broje now works as an Oil Spill Response Expert for Shell Oil. Keller said he is pleased with the success of her design, particularly because of its applicability.

“Although the prize went to American Elastec, it makes us all very proud that our ideas and long hours in the lab paid off with a great invention that is already winning these prizes and making a difference in the world,” Keller said.