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

By David Brown
Saturday, July 3, 2010; A01

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.

More than 46,000 of BP's submissions (about 40 percent of the total) address cleaning up the oil, Cortez said. Of that number, 392 have moved to testing, and nine field tests have been completed.

BP's other big task, "securing the leak at the source," has attracted 60 percent of the responses, but they've been far less successful. Fewer than three dozen have moved to testing.

Of the approximately 3,000 ideas in the Coast Guard suggestion box, only 11 had been identified as "technologically feasible" and sent up the line for further consideration. Of the 1,972 that fell into the "oil wellhead control" category, only one made the cut.

The low pass rate is almost certainly the product of a naivete about what BP is confronting.

"The enormous pressure and temperature conditions at the bottom of the ocean are hard to imagine," said Patrick Little, professor of engineering at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. "Even experienced engineers, when they start thinking about what happens there, are out of their range of experience."

Pressure and hydrates

The experience of the 310 people who submitted ideas through the Principal Investigators Association, which helps academic scientists manage their labs and grants, was definitely not in deep-sea engineering.

There was biochemist Richard Gronostajski, whose idea was to "drop a dewar flask of liquid nitrogen down and pump liquid nitrogen around the pipe until it freezes and then cap it." And pediatrician Ben Gaston, whose suggestion, based on a cardiology procedure, began: "Spring load a 3 ft-diameter flat umbrella (spokes on the outside, steel mesh between the spokes) around the end of a mile-long cable, with a titanium sheath on the outside . . . "

Neither of those ideas is in the running because BP is wary of plugging or sealing the top of the well as long as pressures remain so high. It was because of concerns about pressure that the top kill procedure was stopped, according to an engineer with knowledge of the decision-making who spoke anonymously because he's not an official spokesman.

Thousands of other solutions never got off the drawing board -- or onto it -- because of the problem of "hydrate" formation.

They are chemical structures in which a molecule of a methane gas is caged inside a structure made of solid water molecules. Ice-like, in high-pressure environments they can form well above freezing. (At the depth of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, they would form if the water were 60 degrees Fahrenheit.) They formed under the first cap lowered on the well because that let water mix with oil and methane in a confined space. The current cap avoids that problem by letting oil blow out of vents, preventing the incursion of water.

'Emergency engineering'

Few people doubt there are a few gems buried in the avalanche of not-so-good ones. Many people hope that the "lessons-learned" commissions that will inevitably follow this disaster will identify them. Until then, ideas are in a struggle for survival that would make Darwin cringe.

Donald LaFond's idea is a kind of supersize angioplasty he's used for almost a decade to break up pieces of the Canadian Shield in order to build houses. One day in May he was 60 miles out of town on a job when it dawned on him he had the perfect solution. He told the people at work he had a "family emergency." He headed back to Sudbury and got on the phone to CNN, BP Canada, the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Embassy. He has a patent attorney in Burlington, Ontario, but nobody's attention farther south.

Joseph St. Pierre, of Buffalo, Wyo., makes a product, DualZorb, from dead lodgepole pines, that he says takes oil out of water -- and off the skin of contaminated animals -- better than anything on the market. It's being used by companies in his state, he says, and has the okay of state regulators for oil remediation. Last week, he finally got through to BP -- to Michael Cortez, in fact, who thanked him for the suggestion and said the company would get in touch if it seemed promising.

InnoCentive, the "crowd-sourcing" company, is putting up the best of its ideas, one a day, on its Web site.

Others are thinking of ways to getting a different kind of good idea out of the spill.

Patrick Little runs the Engineering Clinic at Harvey Mudd, a much-admired program in which companies hire student teams to solve actual problems. He said he thinks there's pedagogical potential in this catastrophe.

"It will be interesting to see whether we find room in our curriculum to take an event of this magnitude and incorporate it into how we teach engineering," he said.

Take preparation for worst-case scenarios. "One question is, the next time this happens, what should we do? What technologies do we want sitting in a field in Oklahoma that can be transported to a site immediately?"

Perhaps, he mused, there should even be a course in "emergency engineering."

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