Back when BP was still trying the "top kill" method of slowing the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the news was full of references to "drilling mud."
This stuff is no ordinary mud. It helps a rig drill faster and keeps the equipment cool and lubricated, but it's got some wacky other properties. It's a non-Newtonian fluid. That means its viscosity changes as you apply stress. If you punch or hit a shear thickening non-Newtonian fluid, the atoms in the fluid rearrange themselves in such a way that the liquid acts like a solid. A shear thinning non-Newtonian fluid (like ketchup or toothpaste) behaves the opposite way, getting thinner and drippier under stress.
Still don't quite get it? Check this video:
When they're running--applying a stress whenever their feet strike the surface--the fluid acts like a solid and they can walk on top of it. But when he stands still....
The Mythbusters have played with this phenomenon, too:
So. Drilling mud behaves kind of the same way. Here's Bill Nye explaining it all on CNN. When the drilling mud passes through a narrow opening, under pressure, it locks up and acts more like a solid. The idea was that if BP could pump a water-based drilling mud into the ruined well head and get it to solidify, then they could slow the flow of oil enough that engineers could encase the whole thing in cement. It didn't work. That's because the oil and gas spewing out of the pipe are under tremendous pressure. BP engineers just couldn't pump enough mud in there to stop the oil.
But oobleck isn't. What's oobleck? It's a non-Newtonian fluid you can make and play with at home.
Instructables tells you how.
This huge drill bit (it weighs a couple hundred pounds!) was used for scientific purposes—it was made to retrieve solid chunks of rock to study—but it's similar to the bits that are used to drill into underwater oil reservoirs, like the one that's currently leaking into the Gulf of Mexico.
Take a look at the Object of the Month page to learn more about the BP oil spill, and how we drill miles-deep holes under thousands of feet of water.
Courtesy 84userLast week, BP attempted again to stop the oil flowing from the Deepwater Horizon borehole, this time through something called the "Top Kill" method. BP engineers hoped to slow the oil by pumping heavy drilling mud into the hole, and then cement everything shut. (Drilling mud is used by drilling rigs to cool the equipment, wash away bits of rock, and counteract the upward pressure of underground gas and oil.)
Things seemed to be going well—underwater fountains of mud appeared to have replaced the oil leaking from the well—and then...
BP announced on Friday that despite pumping 30,000 barrels of drilling mud into the well, the oil couldn't be stopped, and so the attempt to "top kill" the well was a failure. Nuts.
BP already has yet a new plan, which sounds kind of like one of the first plans; they're putting another cap over the leak, to contain the spill, and siphon off most of the oil.
This time, they're going to be cutting off the remains of the riser pipe and the top of the blowout preventer assembly, to have a single, clean source of the leak. Then they will be lowering the "Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) Cap Containment System."
The LMRP is supposed to seal around the severed pipe, and it will send the oil up a riser to another drill ship. (The operation should look something like this.)
In the meantime, BP is continuing to drill a relief well to intercept the original borehole, which should allow them to clog it up. As of Friday, the relief well was at 12,090 feet. The press release on the status of the relief well didn't say how deep it would have to be before it intercepted the original hole, however. Less than 18,000 feet, I suppose, seeing as how that was supposed to be the depth of the reservoir (I think).
Check back on Science Buzz for updates on the oil spill.
Later today, BP is going to attempt to block up the leaking oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. They're going to pump heavy drilling mud, followed by cement, into the blowout preventer (the giant valve system that was supposed to stop the well from leaking in the first place). The heavy mud should slow down the oil after a while (it will probably get blasted out of the pipe at first), and then the cement will block up the flow. If it works, it should cap the well, and stop the leak entirely. If not, it's back to the drawing board. An earlier plan for capping the well involved injecting it with shredded junk first, but it looks like that might be off the menu, because of the risk that the junk could further damage the well equipment, and allow oil to escape even faster. So now it's just heavy mud and concrete.
Here's an animation of the process:
And here's a labeled illustration.
Hold your breath and cross your fingers...
Holy cow, Buzzketeers. The oil spill news just keeps coming! I can hardly keep up READING about it, much less BLOGGING.
So I'm going to leave you this weekend with a series of cool links, and you and I can read together.
Start with this mind-boggling plethora of interactive features and graphics from the NYTimes Gulf of Mexico oil spill multimedia collection.
An interactive map tracking the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, plus: video, graphics, and photos."
"Two weeks ago, the government put out a round estimate of the size of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico: 5,000 barrels a day. Repeated endlessly in news reports, it has become conventional wisdom.
But scientists and environmental groups are raising sharp questions about that estimate, declaring that the leak must be far larger. They also criticize BP for refusing to use well-known scientific techniques that would give a more precise figure."
"Tony Hayward, the beleaguered chief executive of BP, has claimed its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is "relatively tiny" compared with the "very big ocean".
In an bullish interview with the Guardian at BP's crisis centre in Houston, Hayward insisted that the leaked oil and the estimated 400,000 gallons of dispersant that BP has pumped into the sea to try to tackle the slick should be put in context.
"The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume," he said."
"Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given."
"NEW ORLEANS — After more than three weeks of efforts to stop a gushing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers achieved some success on Sunday when they used a milelong pipe to capture some of the oil and divert it to a drill ship on the surface some 5,000 feet above the wellhead, company officials said."
"Local environmental officials throughout the Gulf Coast are feverishly collecting water, sediment and marine animal tissue samples that will be used in the coming months to help track pollution levels resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, since those readings will be used by the federal government and courts to establish liability claims against BP. But the laboratory that officials have chosen to process virtually all of the samples is part of an oil and gas services company in Texas that counts oil firms, including BP, among its biggest clients."
"GRAND ISLE, La. — Local and state officials here voiced desperation on Thursday as their fears became far more tangible, with oil from the BP spill showing up on shore as tar balls, sheens and gooey slicks.
In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency said it had told the oil company to immediately select a less toxic dispersant than the one it is now using to break up crude oil gushing from a ruined well in the Gulf of Mexico. Once the agency has signed off on a different product, it said, the company would then have 72 hours to start using it."
"The release of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico could have profound effects for wildlife and aquatic life, and now is threatening to go beyond the Gulf. Midmorning looks at the impact of the spill."
And last, but not least, here's the relevant page on the website of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which has a nice aggregator of oil spill news, along with video from the ocean floor.
Massachusetts Representative Edward J. Markey, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, requested that BP make its real-time camera feed of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill available to the public. And BP did. In theory, you can watch video of the oil spill on the Energy and Commerce Committee's website. But too many people wanted to see it--I sure did!--and ECC's servers are down.
There's a link to the feed on the NYTimes' Green blog, if you want to check back later.
UPDATE: the video feed is available again, although servers are still crashing intermittently. (5/21 a.m.)
Courtesy BP A 4-inch tube has been inserted into the 21-inch diameter pipe spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico per day. Rubber baffles should fill the space between the two pipes. By injecting methanol, it is hoped that hydrates won't freeze and plug up the pipe. This is what happened withing the large containment dome.
Oil and natural gas will hopefully continue to flow to flow up through a 5000 foot long tube to the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship where the oil, water, and gas will be separated. The Enterprise is capable of processing 15,000 barrels of oil per day and storing 139,000 barrels. A support barge will also be deployed with a capacity to store 137,000 barrels of oil.
Update - Monday, May 17 - 1000 barrels a day of the oil spill are being captured on the surface by the drill ship . Any natural gas that comes with is flared off and burned.
"This is just containing the flow, later this week, hopefully before the end of the week, we'll make our next attempt to actually fully stop the flow," BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said on NBC's "Today." Reuters
Courtesy BPNational Public Radio reported this morning about several methods being used to guess how much oil, methane, and other stuff is leaking out of the BP well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
It's interesting to see how various members of the scientific, government, and business community go about trying to guess the real size of the oil spill. NPR worked with a scientist to estimate the size of the leak by literally watching the video from the subs working on the well, and using a computer to estimate the amount of fluid gushing out over time--a technique called PIV. They got a scary big number. The Coast Guard (and BP) have been looking at satellite images of the oil slick. They look at the size of the slick and come up with an esitmate, based on what they know about how oil disperses in water. BP likes this number because it's not super big. Another group did some estimates based purely on the size of the pipe from which the oil is leaking. This number was also big, but there seems to be some scuttlebutt about the actual size of the pipe.
So what does big"" even mean? We mortals have a hard time understanding the scope of numbers after they start to get lots of zeros on them. So we contextualize these numbers. Everyone seems enamored with using the Exxon Valdez disaster as base unit for oil-spill-disasterdyness. Less than Valdez, bad, but good. Bigger than Valdez, bad. A factor of ten worse than Valdez, whoa-momma...we should really...[insert action here].
This story is a great reminder to think critically about the way we think about science in the news.
The oil spill is now X big.
Wait, how did they even come up with that number?
The oil spill has now surpassed a slightly arbitrary point in the past or record.
Um, yes, and.... Is there's a specific number past which this spill will dictate a different action? I'm totally fascinated with all these stories about the scope of the spill, but I do sort of wonder how far beyond, "really freakin' bad" we need to quantify the oil spill. What do you think?
I was just sent this link with some amazing photos of the BP oil spill.
They certainly provide a vibrant visual sense of the disaster.
Courtesy obiwanjrYou know, when that oil rig went down and started spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I thought, “What a downer. My reruns of ‘Yes, Dear’ are going to be interrupted with news footage of crying beavers and stuff for months now.”
But then BP came up with that idea for the containment dome, and I thought, “This is so crazy… it just might work. This could be more entertaining than ‘Yes, Dear.’ If such a thing is possible.”
But, no. The dome failed. Petrochemicals and near-freezing ocean water combined to form crystals in the dome, and it didn’t work. And it was super far underwater, so the failure couldn’t even be set to Benny Hill music or anything. Not entertaining.
I was just resigning myself to the fact that such a horrible accident might not actually be funny, when the jokers at BP let slip that they might have another hilarious trick or two up their sleeves. The dome didn’t work? Let’s try a giant “top hat”!
Yes, BP will be sinking a giant top hat onto the leaking oil pipe. It’s not really a top hat, of course; it’s actually a smaller version of Friday’s giant failure. I’m guessing it’s a sort of a bonus joke. But BP claims that the smaller contraption should have better chance of success, except that even if it does work, it won’t work as well as the dome was supposed to. (The dome was supposed to capture something like 85% of the leaking oil. But it captured 0%, so that’s sort of academic. Or, again, a bonus joke.)
And BP even has another plan, a Plan C, if you will, in the works, in case this one flops. Sort of how they filmed the second and third Matrix movies at the same time. According to my sources, the discussion behind plan C went sort of like this:
“So… what does everyone hate?”
“Yes, for sure Nazis. What else?”
“Um… oil spills?”
“Correct! Oil spills.”
“Ooh! We should do one of those!”
“No, people hate them. Plus we already have one. So what does everyone like?”
“Top hats, obviously. So we should throw one of them in the mix. But, if someone doesn’t like top hats, what do they probably like?”
“Everybody likes… ball pits?”
“Ball pits! Exactly! Let’s do something like that!”
“And tires! Old tires!”
“Yes, old tires too!”
So, in case the top hat doesn’t work, BP is considering injecting the leaking system with golf balls. And old tires. And then they would cap it off with some cement. Oh, right, and there’s this part too:
“What should we call it?
“A ‘junk shot.’ Duh.”
“Oh, my God. Totes perfect.”
And then, I assume, everybody else in the room had to go wash their ears out after hearing the unfortunate term “junk shot.”
Others have warned that such a “junk shot” could have repercussions beyond the phrase appearing in print: damaging the huge valve system at the base of the well could result in oil leaking out even faster—as much as 12 times the current rate.
Performing a junk shot against the flow of oil and the under the pressure at that depth will be extremely challenging, too. According to an expert from Tulane University, such an operation would have to cope with 2,200 pounds per square inch of upward pressure, which would make pumping golf balls and tires down very tricky.
However it turns out, it’s sure to be a barrel of laughs. Or oil. Thousands and thousands of barrels of spilled oil.
(I don’t have any better ideas, by the way. Except not to have a leaking pipeline a mile underwater. But you know what they say about hindsight.)