One (short!) year ago today, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven families lost loved ones on that day, but the social, economic, and environmental damage had only begun.
Courtesy U.S. Coast Gaurd
By April 22, 2010 the $560 million rig sunk, leaving oil spewing from the seabed into the Gulf of Mexico. On the 29th, the state of Louisiana declared a state of emergency due to the threat posed to natural resources, and U.S. President Barack Obama stated that BP was responsible for the cleanup.
Hopeful in those first days, remote underwater vehicles were sent to activate the blowout preventer, but the effort failed. In the following weeks that turned into months, controlled burns, booms, skimmers, and dispersants were used to cleanup oil as efforts to stop the oil flow were underway. The Justice Department launched a criminal and civil investigation, a moratorium on oil drilling was enacted and later rescinded, and the no-fishing zone grew to 37% of American Gulf waters. After 5 months, 8 days, and roughly 5 million barrels of spilled oil, a pressure test finally determined that a relief well had successfully stopped the oil flow. The spill was the world’s largest accidental release of oil into a marine environment.
Courtesy Daniel Christensen
I know you've probably moved on from the BP oil spill to bigger and better things, like Charlie Sheen. But it's worth resurrecting old news for this: oobleck could have succeeded where drilling mud had an epic fail. A researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, came up with the idea to use oobleck because it doesn't behave like a normal liquid--that is, it flows like a liquid if you pour slowly, but behaves like a solid if you apply force to it or try to move it quickly.
This quirky, non-newtonian fluid would have been a big asset to BP's top kill strategy, because the oil's own force would have caused the oobleck to behave like a solid and plug the well, whereas the oil broke up the drilling mud they used and dispersed it. The challenge lies in getting the oobleck quickly into the well without triggering its solid-like behavior too soon.
Have you ever played with oobleck here at Science Museum of Minnesota or elsewhere? It's pretty great stuff, and you can make your own! Who'da thunk it could actually be useful?
Courtesy Lucas Vieira MoreinaFive months after the deadly accident that spilled five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Macondo well of the Deepwater oil spill has been declared “dead.”
It’s like when that rabid dog got into your house, and, after a tense struggle, your dad finally pinned its neck under his foot, and, with an Arnold-esque quip like “Bad dog,” sent a 9 mm bullet into the still-thrashing animal’s brain. And then one more, for good measure.
It’s like that, except your house would have to be like a large, deep body of water. And the rabid dog would also have been uncontrollably vomiting flammable poison everywhere. And your dad wouldn’t really have shot it so much as drilled a couple of holes beneath its head, and then pumped it full of cement. And it was your dad’s fault that it started puking like crazy in the first place, because he was really excited to sell more rabid dog vomit to you. (Because who doesn’t love that stuff?)
In any case, the dog/well has been put down with extreme prejudice. Cement has been injected into the oil well through the intersecting relief wells, and the hardened cap has been pressure tested. The well seems to present “no continuing threat to the Gulf of Mexico.”
That’s a good thing, obviously, but unfortunately it’s not the end of this human and environmental tragedy. Before the leaking well was finally capped, about 210 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf, some of it floating into slicks on the surface, some of it lurking in thick plumes deep in the Gulf. How the unrecovered oil will affect the Gulf’s ecosystems and its human population remains to be seen, and determining the extent of BP’s financial responsibility to the region’s inhabitants will likely be a lengthy and difficult process.
Still, though: Bad dog. Blam. That’s something, right?
Cleaning up oil spills costs big money. BP says the Gulf cleanup cost is $8 Billion. Hoping that next time we can do it better, faster, and cheaper, Wendy Schmidt has offered $1.4 Million in prizes to inspire a new generation of innovative solutions.
A $1 Million Prize will be awarded to the team that demonstrates the ability to recover oil on the sea surface at the highest oil recovery rate (ORR) and the highest Recovery Efficiency (RE).
If you are interested click here for the competition rules.
MIT may have a jump on the competition with their Seaswarm project. Last week they showed off what looked like a solar powered treadmill that lapped up spilled oil. Using GPS and wireless communication, a swarm of these devices autonomously coordinate their movements.
"We envisioned something that would move as a rolling carpet along the water and seamlessly absorb a surface spill," said MIT researcher Assaf Biderman. "This led to the design of a novel marine vehicle -- a simple and lightweight conveyor belt that rolls on the surface of the ocean, adjusting to the waves." Computerworld
They estimate that 5000 of their robotic sea-swarm vehicles could clean up a Gulf sized spill in a month.
This article describes a new sugar-based compound in development by researchers at the City College of New York that has the potential to make oil slick cleanup a lot easier in the future. The compound turns the oil to gel, which can be easily skimmed from the water's surface. This is a great alternative to dispersants like the ones BP used because it's nontoxic and shouldn't harm ocean organisms. Check out the video on the same page of that stuff in action--pretty cool!
Estimates of the amount of oil that spilled from the ruined Deepwater Horizon wellhead vary greatly, so it's tough to pin down a total amount. (The short answer is, "a LOT.") But that difficulty hasn't stopped a bunch of different sources from trying...
The official estimate is that some 50 million to 140 million gallons spilled.
Boston.com has a nice gallery of images to help visualize just how much oil has spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. (Unfortunately, the numbers and comparisons only reflect the amount spilled as of June 11, so it's a month out of date. But still fascinating.)
The Alaska Dispatch has a counter that estimates the total amount of oil spilled. (They figure some 92,240,117 gallons, or about 2,196,193 barrels, over 87 days.)
And, last, here's a map of the world's largest oil spills.
The new cap BP has placed on the leaking oil well a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico seems like it might actually be working. That means that for the for the first time in almost three months, oil has stopped flowing from the well.
I'm hesitant to let out a cheer for this, if only because we've already had quite a few gotcha-moments with "solutions" in the response to the oil leak. Right now the pressure from the well is being monitored to determine if the cap should stay tightly sealed onto the well or not—if the pressure stays high, that's good, but if the pressure drops, it could mean that the pipe has ruptured underground, which would be bad. Leaks beneath the sea floor would be much more difficult to manage, because the oil would seep up through the sediment in many places, instead of gushing from one broken pipe.
Anyway, here's hoping that the cap holds, leak free, until relief wells are completed and the leaking well can be shut off entirely. Stay tuned...
Courtesy Library of CongressBP: Do you know... is that oil well thing still leaking?
Someone else: Hmm. Probably? I haven't heard much about it lately. Let me check.
BP: Sweet. Thanks a mil.
Someone else: Yeah, it's totally leaking still.
BP: Oh, nuts. Ok... like, is it leaking a lot?
Someone else: Yeah.
BP: But didn't we do something about that? Like, we... dressed it up or something?
Someone else: The "Top Hat." You put a cap on it. But the cap is only capturing about 25,000 barrels a day.
BP: "Only" 25,000? Sounds like someone has unreasonably high standards...
Someone else: Could be. But the well is probably leaking about 60,000 barrels a day. Maybe more.
BP: Hmm... Well, we ought to do something about that. What about... what about...
Someone else: Yes?!
BP: What about some sort of cap to suck off the leaking oil. A big metal cap. Like... a giant top hat. Have we tried that?
Someone else: Yes, you've tried it a couple times.
BP: All right then! Operation Top Hat is go!
Bless their little hearts, BP is at it again. While national news overage of the Gulf oil leak seems to have slowed to a somewhat less frantic pace, the oil itself continues to flow. BP had placed a cap over the severed end of the drill riser, but, so far, was capturing only 25,000 barrels (about a million gallons) of oil a day. That number is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but official estimates place the daily flow of oil at about 60,000 barrels, possibly more.
Taking advantage of calmer seas this weekend, BP has been fitting a new cap on the leaking well. While they're reluctant to make any promises, BP claims that the new cap could potentially capture the entire flow of leaking oil. Also, the new cap has a device that could measure the overall flow rate, and it should be able to more easily disconnect and reconnect with the leak. Why would we ever want to disconnect the cap if it's capturing all the oil? Hurricane season is starting, disconnecting the cap in a bad storm could help prevent more damage to well and the oil-recovery equipment.
We'll see, eh?
Meanwhile, the first relief well is slightly ahead of schedule, and it could intersect with the blown well by the end of the month, at which point BP could begin to pump mud and cement into the well to shut it down entirely.
Buzz readers who really know me know my passion for the Doobie Brothers. So I have to absolutely post this parody video featuring their song "Black Water." This effort even has the band's official okay!!
Found on the NYTimes Dot Earth blog, this little video uses
"...software tools from the gaming world to illustrate what a low-end estimate of the volume of oil gushing from the Gulf of Mexico seabed looks like if displayed as stacked barrels."
(25,000 barrels is now the low estimate of how much oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the ruined Deepwater Horizon wellhead every day.)
I was intrigued, but the lack of scale bugs me. 25,000 barrels obviously makes a big pile, but just how big is big?