Hair, Hay & Nukes: The Web's Oil Spill Solutions

Employees from a Tallahassee, Fla., firm demonstrate how hay and straw can be used to clean up oil spills. YouTube

BP says in the Gulf of Mexico, but at the same time the company also says the federal government has ultimate control over the event. The government, meanwhile, says it's BP's mess and so they're responsible for cleaning it up.

Many fingers are pointing on the Internet, too, in all directions, with some people even being angry about other people's anger (yes, Rand Paul).

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

But beyond the rage, there are also suggestions on what to do, now! (if not yesterday) to stop the Gulf's bleeding of oil and to clean up what's already been leaked.

Suck It Up With Really Big Ships

Former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister and former Saudi Aramco manager Nick Pozzi told Fast Company that 85 percent of oil from a massive offshore Saudi spill in the early 1990s was cleaned up using supertankers to suck in seawater and oil - millions of barrels at a time - and discharge them in port where the two substances could be separated and treated.

Hofmeister and Pozzi each said they'd tried suggesting the solution to both BP and government officials, and have heard crickets.

Perhaps, as Pozzi tells Fast Company, it's the downside to the plan: "You tie up oil tankers" - tankers that could be carrying crude above the Gulf's waters to customers.

Use the (Centrifugal) Force

As the spill has shown, oil does not always float on top of water. Plumes of oil have been discovered under the surface, and extracting it from the ocean is much more problematic than simply skimming the surface.

Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, actor-director Kevin Costner helped fund a group of scientists developing a device to aid in oil cleanups. The Ocean Therapy machine uses centrifugal force to separate clumps of oil from water. BP has approved a test of 26 of the devices in the Gulf.

"Lava lamps and things like that, we've been brainwashed to think that oil and water don't mix," Dr. Michio Kaku, physics professor at City University of New York and host of "Sci-Fi Science" on the Science Channel, told "The Early Show on Saturday Morning." "Shampoo, mayonnaise, lotion, creams, most of your kitchen cabinet is actually emulsified water and oil. They do mix. So it's a misconception that oil and water never mix."

He said the physics of the Ocean Therapy machines would separate the water from the oil, but at the rate of 200 gallons a minute, it's too little, too late.

"The oil slick is as big as the state of Connecticut," Dr. Kaku said. "You need hundreds, hundreds of these ships with these machines to begin to pump the water and separate it. We have to get real, and that is the slick is gargantuan in size, and 26 or so machines just don't cut it."

Let's Just Nuke It

Russian science editor Vladimir Lagowski has written a column in which he claims that the U.S.S.R. used nuclear devices to plug underground fissures several times with success - most of the time. The author cites one failure, where a 1972 gas blowout was not extinguished by a nuke. But at least it was only 4 kilotons.

This peaceful use of nuclear detonations fell under the Soviet Union's Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy program. The Russian Analytical Center for Non-Proliferation lists 67 underground nuclear explosions conducted by the U.S.S.R. in the interests of its national economy between 1965 and 1990.

Lagowski writes that the probability a nuke detonated a mile under the gulf would seal the Deepwater Horizon leak is perhaps 20 percent: "Americans could take a chance."

Let's Award Cash Prizes

InnoCentive, a "global web community for open innovation," announced a challenge for its members to come up with a solution to mitigate the impact of the Gulf of Mexico spill, and is offering a cash prize for the winner.

In 2007 the Oil Spill Recovery Institute awarded a prize for finding process to remove frozen oil from the bottom of Prince William Sound (using pneumatic concrete vibrators to break up the oil, restoring liquid flow).

Non-Traditional Substances to Soak Up Oil

(Matter of Trust)
Hair: Matter of Trust's Hair for Oil Spills Program collects shaved hair to create booms and mats to absorb oil from spills.

And it's not just from salons: animal groomers, wool & alpaca fleece farmers, pet owners and just plain hairy individuals can also sign up to donate hair, fur, fleece, feathers, or the nylons and tights that are stuffed for booms.

Matter of Trust's hair mats were deployed successfully in 2007 to absorb oil on the beaches of San Francisco that had leaked from the Cosco Busan after it collided with the Bay Bridge.

However, CBS Affiliate WWL reports today that engineers will not use booms made out of hair. Crews evidently concluded on Saturday that using the hair was not feasible after tests (conducted in February during an oil spill in Texas) showed that commercial boom absorbed more oil and less water than hair boom.

Charlie Henry of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said hair booms became water-logged and sank.

Organizations collecting hair were asked to stop doing so.

One man told WWL, "Even if it doesn't work the most efficiently, it's better than nothing. If you look at the pictures right now that we're seeing, that we're allowed to see, there are no booms out in front of Grand Isle. So why not use ours?"

Hay and Straw: In this YouTube video two employees from CW Roberts Contracting, a Tallahassee, Fla., company, demonstrate how dropping hay onto the surface of oil-contaminated water will absorb the oil - and then you just scoop up the hay.

"You can't screw up," one man says. Walton County seems to agree.

Sick 'Em

And if BP isn't fixing the leak and cleaning the spill fast enough, Rayne, posting on The Seminal at firedoglake.com, foists a lot of blame at President Obama for not using the Executive Office's powers to their fullest extent.

Rayne says Mr. Obama should declare BP in violation of its lease and kick them off our property - and while they're at it, threaten to seize all American assets of the company if they fail to set up a proper claims system paid for by the company.

Rayne also makes the economic argument that if BP "cut corners" in the Gulf of Mexico, chances are they did so elsewhere, and so the government should investigate their other operations, such as in Alaska (where the company is still trying to settle claims for two spills in Prudhoe Bay dating from 2006).

Rayne also suggests the government fund an alternative energy plan modeled after the Apollo program or the Marshall Plan, and tabs Al Gore as the man for the job (since he, like, proposed it almost two decades ago).

He even offers a little helpful advice to the acknowledged First Trekker: "I'm tempted to tell one Barack Obama to get really, genuinely excitedly-upset, be more than that Spock character for once, add the passion of Captain Kirk and the anger of Dr. McCoy in the mix."
  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.

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