Solver Stories: John Davis

By Wazoku

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My name is John Davis – “I came up with a method to break the viscous shear of crude oil under cold weather conditions helping to clean up a 20 year old oil spill from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.”


The Exxon Valdez oil spill was a manmade disaster that occurred when Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker owned by the Exxon Shipping Company, spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI) was established by Congress in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Oil slick covered 1,300 miles of coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, otters, seals and whales.

By 2007, in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there were still over 120,000 liters of oil trapped in the Alaskan coastline and surrounding seas. The OSRI sought to clean-up after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and posed a challenge to the global solver community to find a method to separate oil from water; specifically oil that had solidified into a viscous mass with frozen water in recovery barges.

My name is John Davis and I studied chemistry at Illinois State University and the University of Notre Dame. I have worked as a consultant for petrochemical and general manufacturing facilities, but like most people, I have previously had many different kinds of jobs. One summer, I gained some experience in construction pouring concrete, and I used some of that knowledge to help inspire and solve a problem that would enable crude oil (from oil spills) to be removed from arctic waters.

Concrete vibrators are used to allow the concrete mixture to easily flow into smaller cracks and crevices when forming concrete and can also be used to restore liquid flow to concrete that has begun to set-up prematurely. The first time I saw this in action, I was completely amazed. The concrete vibrator was like a magic wand; when merely touched to a tall mound of setting concrete, it restored flow so quickly that it actually splashed back down to ground level. I realized that with some minor modifications, pneumatic concrete vibrators could resolve the issue by restoring liquid flow to the icy oil slush mixture.

When I was writing up my solution, I thought that perhaps this solution was too obvious. Slushy frozen oil-sea water mixtures in sub-arctic waters behave very similar to fresh poured (uncured) cement, for which a concrete vibrator is used to allow it to flow more freely. My solution was to use modified pneumatic concrete vibrators to keep the oil-water slush moving with more fluidity. Certainly, others would have tried this already! However, it turned out that this unique tool of the concrete industry, as applied to an oil industry problem, had not yet been explored. It is a perfect illustration of how seeking input outside of the usual channels to solve a problem can lead to new insights and discoveries that may otherwise have been missed.

Like many others, I enjoy the challenge of solving problems. And, helping to tackle this major environmental problem was particularly satisfying. It means a lot to me that I made a contribution which is being used by the OSRI, because their work is very important. In fact, the prize money has been utilized primarily to finance the exploration of other high impact innovations, including other environmental and soil remediation technologies. I plan to visit OSRI in Alaska to watch my solution in action someday.

Extract from our book One Smart Crowd  – How crowdsourcing is changing the world one idea at a time. The book is available in Paperback or Kindle format here.

By Wazoku

Wazoku is an innovation SaaS business that helps some of the world’s biggest organizations to innovate at scale. Whether it’s making the most of your employee's ideas, identifying new partners to collaborate with, or exploring the boundless potential of open innovation – or all three! – Wazoku makes innovation happen.