Posted in what really matters by hemmant jha on June 15, 2010

It’s been over 50 days since the BP oil spill began.

I feel that I should preface this piece with a disclaimer : we’re not clean-up experts. At thinkmore, we’re creators of workable solutions to complex problems. We’d prefer that our comments be seen as being constructive, perhaps as inspirational ideas, not criticism of the work that corporate and government experts are doing – we’ve no doubt that everyone involved is doing what they can. It is all too easy for those of us who write to become critics, without having really inserted ourselves into the situation. At the same time, we’re all quite observant people, and the current state of affairs is readily apparent.

While it is disconcerting that there were not enough safeguards in place to have prevented this from happening, it’s more worrying still that surprisingly little has been done to contain the spill, at the source or at the surface. In this instance, there are two kinds of containment possible – a cap or closure on the mouth of the well, and a physical containment around the primary area of the spill, starting at the water’s surface and going down into the water.

At this moment, there’s oil riding on and in the water, moving to areas far and wide – this is the stuff that’s getting on beaches, into the stomachs of birds and pretty much everywhere that seawater would normally go.

BP [and the White House] has shown initiative in dealing with this mess. There have been teams assembled of experts in their fields. From everything we’ve heard so far, not much has been resolved. There’s been no real containment of the source, and the oil continues to spill out. Of course, when dealing with the clamping down of a source, there are two approaches:

1.0  Close off the tap so the leak is permanently sealed, and cannot be accessed for further removal of oil. If this oil field needs to be tapped into again, it would need to be re-tapped into at another location.

2.0  Stem the flow of oil at this location, in a way that would allow for the quick re-starting of oil excavation from this field once the immediate crisis has passed. This seems to be the BP approach at the moment, and from a business perspective, one might say it is the logical one [anyone watch ‘the Corporation‘ yet?]. From an ecological perspective, this could be a an unfortunate approach, and has proved to be so.

At the time of writing, “Total oil collected since the LMRP Cap containment system was implemented is approximately 149,900 barrels.” Source image below.

Regardless of how one might close off the tap, there’s the very real and ever present issue of the oil spilling into the water, in ever increasing quantities – adding up to tens of millions of gallons. This needs to be contained and removed. May we suggest a physical means of containment?

Imagine a series of panels made of flexible filter [fine nets of particular specifications and characteristics] lined side by side to form a cylinder. The cylinder is thus constructed of an array of panels of this selectively porous material. Each panel is supported along its entire height by the panel on either side, and held by flotation devices. The filter material is designed to allow for the passage of water and liquids with viscosity similar to water, but to retain materials with viscosity similar to crude oil. Filtration is a complex field, but is well understood, and materials exist that exhibit these properties. This large cylindrical assembly floats in the water and is held in location by tugboats that help prevent it from being driven along by currents and drifting away. The simple representation of the idea shown below is not to the scale of the current spill.

This assembly performs two functions – it [mostly] restricts the unhindered spread of oil on the surface, and allows for any oil within this containment to be siphoned out through designated openings [shown in red on drawing above].

For larger spills, there could be an assembly of containment filters, each one linked to the other, with the spaces inbetween also functioning as containment areas – imagine a honeycomb pattern, but one with access channels cut into it that allow for the passage of ships and boats for oil removal and grid maintenance.

It is practically guaranteed that this filter assembly will get clogged up eventually – all filters do, otherwise they would not have been doing what they are designed to do. Once this happens, insert a new cylinder concentric to the one that’s been used, and remove the used filter. Repeat as necessary. At the very least, this will stem the flow of what’s started to reach communities along the shore. Containment booms alone cannot work – they’re shallow devices that float on the surface, on oil or water. Clearly, something that floats on the surface of a substance cannot, at the same time, also be used for containment of that substance.

In a serious and continuing disaster, 50 days is a long time – what’s going on right now is starting to look like a breach of ethical contract. If the safety of the environment cannot be guaranteed by a business and its practices, perhaps seeking a different line of work is in order.


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