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Cristian Madrazo, center, and Xavier Cotton, right, demo their oil spill cleanup idea, the "Orca" drone, to an innovation challenge judge. (Front Range Community College)

Xavier Cotton and Cristian Madrazo remember being kids watching video of petroleum spewing from Deepwater Horizon and poisoning the Gulf of Mexico. 

They also remember how ludicrous it seemed for Dawn to be running commercials about decontaminating baby otters with a few ounces of dish soap in the face of a 210-million-gallon oil spill. 

Surely there had to be something better to put up against an ocean of dislocated fossil fuel. 

Fast forward to engineering classes at Front Range Community College, with a challenge from a teacher to make their first-year project address a problem in the environment and sustainability. In between warehouse shifts at Amazon and other youthful demands, Cotton and Madrazo watched videos of oil spills on YouTube. 

Weeks of tinkering later, and with the help of a wading pool, some empty water bottles as flotation devices, and much of Cotton’s own hair, the team produced “Orca.” 

It’s a drone for oil spills. It sits at the edge of a plastic boom that surrounds and slowly reels in a floating spill, and soaks up the petroleum through a hair filter. 

Orca works like the baleen bristles inside a whale’s mouth. (Don’t “actually” the young engineers about orcas being faux whales, because they’ve heard it. They stick to the Wiki explanation of an orca as “a toothed whale belonging to the oceanic dolphin family,” and they know their marketing, as we are about to find out.) 

A working prototype of the “Orca” oil skimming drone hard at work in a Walmart wading pool as Front Range Community College students Cristian Madrazo and Xavier Cotton perfect their model. (Photo provided by Madrazo and Cotton)

Orca won the Front Range Community College local engineering challenge, and their enthusiastic teachers urged them on to national competitions. So they went. And in June, Cotton and Madrazo won second prize — with a cash chaser — at the National Science Foundation’s annual Community College Innovation Challenge. The judges, who first grilled all the teams in a “Shark Tank”-style atmosphere, called Orca “a new method of cleaning oil spills that is both inexpensive and quick.” 

Not to mention, Cotton said, “the current solutions are just terrible. The main solutions are like burning, which releases fumes into the environment, and these chemical disbursers that stay in the ocean releasing toxins. There’s petroleum based sponges, which kind of suck up oil, and then the sponges just fall to the floor, and it’s just littering the oceans for different creatures and critters to eat. We had to make this.” 

Human hair absorbs five times its weight in oil. When Cotton’s ‘do wasn’t big enough for the job, they added in hair from his dog. They poured some motor oil in a Walmart wading pool, set their manhole-cover-size drone to work, and it sucked. In a good way. 

The prize is part consolation for the fact that Cotton’s hair hasn’t grown back yet. 

Personality in presentation

Front Range Community College computer science instructor Diane Rhodes says the pair succeeded in part because they had a good idea, backed it with solid engineering and modeling work, and put in the time to overcome physical problems and fix broken parts. But their personalities also made a big impact, Rhodes said. 

Doing well at innovation competitions requires interaction, practice in public, and a bit of sales, Rhodes said.

“They were very enthusiastic, and very knowledgeable. They were able to articulate their problem in a concise way. And they were not shy,” Rhodes said. “They had fun. I like to have fun in my class. I take my class seriously, but don’t take myself so seriously,” and that’s what Cotton, 19, and Madrazo, 22, brought with Orca, she said. 

“And I never once had to tell them to put their phones down. Which I thought I was going to have to do. Because I do have to do that in my class. Regrettably,” she said. 

The two engineering students say each presentation got better, with the help of Rhodes, other teachers, and the expert judges for the national competition at the Library of Congress. 

“I learned to give your audience just enough so that they understand it,” Cotton said. “And not so much what we care about, or what we think they should care about. Just let them guide the conversation.”

Before one important presentation, Rhodes said, the boys came to her and said they’d been practicing a new technique. They had created a graphically fresh poster that everyone agreed was a killer view of their idea, and they wanted their pitch to sound like a scripted-but-casual conversation between Madrazo and Cotton. Rhodes was a bit queasy at what sounded very cheesy. 

“So they went and did it, and it was fantastic,” Rhodes said. “And I thought, this is a classic example of why you shouldn’t just say no right away before you see.”

One judge in Washington, D.C., started talking enthusiastically about patent possibilities and commercialization. Rhodes agrees that Orca may very well prove a viable product in the future, but for now they plan to “park” the idea and focus on more schoolwork. Cotton is headed for a four-year degree at Colorado School of Mines, and Madrazo will be transferring his credits to the University of Colorado for work in architectural engineering. 

A prototype of the “Orca” oil spill cleanup drone with a sample boom attached to contain the oil as it’s drawn into the float for separation. (Front Range Community College)

“They have a lot on their plate,” Rhodes said. 

Like all good engineers and entrepreneurs, the team crammed their heads with ideas from the other innovators in their competitions. Madrazo admired an idea for HIV medication from a Santa Monica college, deep into a kind of biological engineering that was very different from the mechanical engineering featured in other products. Cotton was most enthused about a recycling bin that automatically scans materials dropped in and sorts or rejects objects that need to go elsewhere. 

“They did a really good job,” Cotton said. “I’m proud to have come in second place to them.”