Possible oil-spill solutions pour in, seemingly unheeded, from around the world

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By David Brown
Saturday, July 3, 2010

A constituent of Sen. Mike Enzi's makes a product from beetle-killed pine trees that soaks up oil like crazy, but the man can't get BP to listen to his ideas. What's happened to his suggestions? "They've been lost," the Wyoming Republican complained at a hearing two weeks ago.

The pine tree product was one of about 120,000 ideas BP says it has received in recent weeks. Its proponent is one of many to express frustration by the company's apparent lack of response.

John Rexholm, a 57-year-old Swedish naval architect living in Germany, has an idea for hooding the blown-out Gulf well and directing the oil up to the surface. He sent it to BP. A month later, he got three e-mail replies in a day: One asked for more information, another said a similar idea was being considered and a third advised that "your idea cannot be applied under the very challenging . . . conditions we face."

Donald LaFond, a 48-year-old contractor in Sudbury, Ontario, is sure that the device he invented eight years ago to crack rock without dynamite could seal the Deepwater Horizon well. He's spent six weeks trying to get someone to listen.

Dwayne Spradlin, head of the Internet-based problem-solving network InnoCentive, put out a call for ideas April 30. About 2,500 people have answered. On June 19, BP said it would not proceed with any of their suggestions because an agreement with InnoCentive would be "too complex and burdensome."

"Our network is incredibly disenchanted in BP's lack of interest in outside solutions," Spradlin said.

That pretty much summarizes the view of thousands of other people.

Thanks to the crowd-sourcing potential of the Internet, sea-floor-to-Gulf-shore video and the water-torture failure of BP to stop the leak, the Deepwater Horizon disaster has become a personal challenge to numberless scientists, engineers and basement inventors.

As of Friday, 119,611 technological suggestions had been sent or routed to BP's offices in Houston, coming in at a rate of about 4,000 a day. The Coast Guard's Research and Development Center had gotten about 3,000 submittals. Most from both sources proposed ways to stop the leak or clean up the oil. Some suggested products. Others offered services.

BP says it is looking at all ideas, which range from two-sentence e-mails to fully engineered proposals. They include digital photos of drawings on whiteboards and a crayoned idea from a 9-year-old boy in Virginia.

"The passion is just extraordinary," said Michael J. Cortez, a petroleum engineer who manages the Alternative Response Technology team at BP. But the reality is that nearly all are impossible, impractical, obvious or likely to make things worse.

"There are not a lot of novel ideas that we don't already have a lot of minds thinking of at the same time," Cortez said.

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