Slate readers' ideas for how to stop the oil leaking in the Gulf of Mexico.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
May 26 2010 12:02 AM

Freeze It, Crimp It, Plug It, Nuke It

Slate readers' ideas for how to stop the oil leaking in the Gulf of Mexico.

See our Magnum Photos galleries on oil spills in Prince William Sound and elsewhere.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

After a long series of delays, BP says it plans to launch its "top kill" operation on Wednesday, the latest in a series of attempts to stop the gush of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Along with this injection of "drilling mud," the company could also try plugging the well's blowout preventer with junk such as golf balls and shredded tires. And if that doesn't work—well, who knows?

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

At Slate, we figured that the who might very well be one of you: our genius readers. Last week, we asked you to submit your ideas for how to stop or contain the oil spill. Some of the 161 responses advocated using BP executives to plug the hole or deploying an army of ShamWows to mop up the mess. After separating out the comedians, I divided our entries into categories and passed them along to a bunch of oil spill experts: Merv Fingas, the author of The Basics of Oil Spill Cleanup; Dr. Gerald Graham, the president of Worldocean Consulting, a Canadian firm that works on oil-spill-response planning; and an oil-and-gas-engineering consultant who wished to remain anonymous. I also consulted with InnoCentive, which uses crowd-sourcing to help corporations like Procter & Gamble and nonprofits like the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative find solutions to hard-to-solve problems. (Like Slate, InnoCentive is asking its community of "solvers" to find solutions to the BP oil spill.)

Your suggestions ranged from a boycott of BP ("No one in the U.S. should buy any BP gasoline until they have the mess cleaned up") to complex engineering solutions ("Get a cone style drilling robot that turns like a drill and opens like a bell end spreader for a pipe"). Fingas and the anonymous consultant weren't terribly enthused about any of the concepts brought forward by Slate readers. "Not one of these is a practical solution or hasn't been tried already," said Fingas, while the anonymous consultant explains via e-mail that "BP is not that dumb, and the public … are not as smart as they think they are."

Graham and the InnoCentive crew—including program manager Dr. Michael J. Albarelli, who has previously led InnoCentive's collaborations with the Oil Spill Recovery Institute—were more bullish. Another thing Graham and InnoCentive have in common: Both say they've been unable to get BP's ear. While BP has encouraged the general public to send in ideas, InnoCentive CEO Dwayne Spradlin says "the open call alone is not sufficient. You've got to provide feedback and technical data and what you're seeing on the ground." Without a call for more specific suggestions—for example, asking the public for help on the problem of hydrates mucking up BP's containment dome—the company is essentially asking people to make blind guesses.

One thing we do know is that BP is aware of the ideas suggested by Slate readers to contain the oil that's already leaked. One popular strategy was to absorb the oil using materials ranging from hay to wool to discarded cotton. Other commenters suggested using repellents (Erick Tatro, for one, suggested using "the concepts of hydrophobicity-based liquid chromatography") and shipping in oil-eating bacteria, a concept favored by Worldocean Consulting's Graham. (Albarelli notes that bioremediation "only works at warmer temperatures so only on the surface and on beaches.")

The majority of our readers focused on techniques for closing off the leak. Lots of people thought we should try to blow something up. "Would a well-placed Navy torpedo create enough debris to clog the hole?" Slate editor David Plotz wondered. The commenter "JohnGalt," among others, endorsed the nuclear option, explaining that "[w]e have some fairly clean nuclear devices these days."* Albarelli argues that these should be options of last resort—that "there are no do-overs" if, say, a torpedo hits the wrong spot. Environmentally conscious types might also have a problem with detonating a nuclear weapon: "How many whales, Kemp's Ridley turtles, dolphins, etc. do you want to kill?" asks our anonymous consultant.

Other folks, like the commenter "Garrett," suggested freezing the pipe using something like liquid nitrogen. Another Slate reader, "CAP," advocates using the methane hydrate crystals that mucked up the containment dome to plug the wellhead. The issues here, according to Albarelli, are getting the freezing agent underwater and ensuring the oil and/or the methane hydrate crystals stay frozen. (The anonymous consultant isn't confident about keeping the crystals crystallized, explaining that "hydrates melt at 70 [degrees Fahrenheit] and 1,000 psi and at lower temperatures as the pressure decreases.")

Another commonly suggested fix was to somehow crimp the pipe shut. The problem here, as the consultant says, is that unless the crimping seals the pipe, "you have just made the leak worse." The pipe-crimping suggestions, as well as what InnoCentive has taken to calling angioplasty solutions—inserting some kind of inflated plug into the pipe—are both instances where BP could be more helpful in providing data, as potential fixes are dependent on pressure and temperature.

Albarelli liked John Calafin's idea for an expanding plug—"taking a non-Newtonian fluid (i.e., cornstarch and water) and forcing it into the chamber holding the oil … like Stop Leak for your cars radiator, but on a much more massive scale." (The consultant pointed out that this is basically what BP's planned top kill is doing.) InnoCentive was also impressed with Brad Clopton's notion of "insert[ing] an extrusion pipe loaded with a compressed plug that would expand against the inside of the pipe," calling it "one of the more unique solutions we've seen."

Adding an external shutoff valve to the pipe would be a mean feat, but how could you pull it off? A commenter named Adrian suggests "wrap[ping] a rubber coupling around the pipe fitting with heavy clamps" and attaching a hose and a valve to the other end. The potential problem here is finding materials that can withstand the massive pressure. "A rubber hose and clamp might not be sufficient," Albarelli says.

If all else fails, we could always try to bury the leak. Slate readers suggested covering the busted well with concrete or a massive ship hull. Worldocean Consulting's Graham favors this idea, suggesting that a barge could smother the leaks. InnoCentive's Albarelli counters that you "would still need to get the oil out and to the surface," while the consultant notes that you'd be replicating the problems of BP's original containment dome—a barge, too, would fill with hydrates. There's also the risk of damaging the well by dropping a massive object, nor would it be easy to anchor the concrete (or the barge) so it doesn't get dislodged by the massive pressure from the spewing oil.

How about using submarines? Commenter Justin Medeiros recommends a fleet of "subs that take in oiled sea water and run it through a centrifuge to separate the two." An interesting thought, says Albarelli, but probably not timely considering that someone would need to build such an armada of undersea, oil-skimming vehicles. InnoCentive and our anonymous consultant were both intrigued by the e-mailer who wrote into Slate's Explainer inbox recommending that BP commandeer the submersibles used to explore the wreckage of the Titanic. "I would like to go down in one and take a look around," wrote the consultant, who called this "the only good idea" on our list.

Several Slate readers sent in ideas that wouldn't require any engineering. A commenter who goes by "Amy" wrote that "[t]here is one simple answer, and it will warm the hearts of every American—BP offers to pay for all oil that is collected, on land or at sea, by individual or group." A heartwarming idea, yes, but as Albarelli says: "There may be liability concerns if someone gets hurt collecting oil. … There are many examples from the Exxon Valdez spill of non-professionals getting involved with good intentions, but actually making the situation worse." Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, by contrast, suggested the best course would be to do absolutely nothing. "We should calculate the cost of this leak … and using this target figure, we should pursue new environmental and economic initiatives to neutralize the costs of the spill," he explained. I can see it now—millions upon millions of solar panels and wind turbines and recycling trucks, all emblazoned with the BP logo.

Correction, May 26, 2010:This article originally mischaracterized a comment by reader Brian Hartman. While Hartman wrote that "the Russian Government [once] used a nuclear bomb to close an oil well that got out of hand," he argued "strongly against using any sort of nuclear device, especially under water, in one of the most inter-connected eco-systems in the world." Rather, Hartman advocated detonating a non-nuclear bomb. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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